At the end of 2012, the 112th Congress went down in history as the most unproductive ever. During 2011-2012, Congress passed a mere 283 laws - fewer than a third of the more than 900 laws passed by the “do-nothing Congress” derided by President Harry S Truman in 1948.
The current Congress, however, is already on track to shatter the dubious record set by its predecessor.
Sixty-six days into the current session (Congress is again in recess this week), Congress has passed a whopping 10 laws. Count them.
And the most recent of these - Public Law 113-10 - was enacted to address this pressing priority: “To specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.”
Even to catch up to last Congress’s legislative output, Congress would need to pass roughly one bill every other day (and with no more breaks for recess).
Observers of American politics have long noticed a link between increasing political polarization and declining Congressional productivity. After the 1992 election, which saw 103 swing districts up for grabs, the subsequent Congress passed a respectable 465 pieces of legislation. By 2012, the number of competitive House seats had dropped to just 35, and Congressional productivity declined accordingly.
This chart juxtaposes the diminishing number of “swing” districts identified by New York Times blogger Nate Silver with the number of laws passed by the subsequent Congress. Despite one anomaly in 2004, the trend line is unmistakably down, down, down.
Fewer than 3 percent of the bills introduced last Congress made it to the President’s desk, which means it’s actually almost twice as easy to get your kid into Harvard than it is to get a bill through Congress.
By comparison, legislators in the 101st Congress - the most prolific in recent history - passed 7 percent of the bills that were introduced. Out of 9,243 bills, 650 laws were put on the books.
Polarization has crushed Congressional productivity in two ways. First, it’s virtually eliminated the moderates who have historically played the role of bridge-builders between the two parties.
Moderates have often been the first to walk across the aisle and have been essential to many of the bipartisan coalitions that have passed major legislation in the past.
But more importantly, polarization has emboldened and entrenched the conservative obstructionism that is the real reason behind Congressional paralysis. Conservatives ensconced in “safe” seats can fan the flames with their base and face no consequences electorally.
There is no way that half the Tea Partiers in Congress could hold their extreme views were they representing districts that were more evenly matched ideologically. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, won 59 percent of the 2012 vote in a district where 57 percent also voted for Mitt Romney. Cantor’s district in Virginia, which lies just outside Richmond, also borders a district where 80 percent voted for President Obama.
Unfortunately, the consequences of conservative obstructionism go far beyond the frustrations of vacancies not filled, issues not dealt with, and manufactured crises over the debt ceiling. The degeneration of Congress has, in fact, blackened government’s reputation with the public, perhaps indelibly.
In an April 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, nearly three-fourths of Americans say they trust government “only some of the time or never,” while a majority (53 percent) said they see the federal government as “a threat to their personal rights and freedoms.” Back in 1960, by comparison, nearly three-fourths of Americans said they trusted government “always or most of the time.”
Most disturbing is the drop in support for government from Democrats. According to Pew, the share of Democrats who view government favorably has dropped by 20 percentage points in the last four years, from 61 percent in 2009 to 41 percent in 2013. In fact, more Democrats now view government unfavorably than favorably.
Progressives shouldn’t underestimate the amount of work that will be necessary to restore public faith in government. So long as progressives continue to believe that government should be a principal agent of social change, restoring public trust in the ability of government to function well should become a priority that tops all others.
In the meantime, the lack of legislative progress hasn’t stymied legislative activity. Lawmakers in the current Congress have already introduced 3,093 bills, while members of the last Congress sponsored 10,437 pieces of legislation. Many members now also engage in a 24/7 sideshow of hearings, town halls, tweets and gigs on Fox and MSNBC.
But for all this sound and fury, Congress, increasingly, is signifying nothing.
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