Congress heads home this weekend leaving a slew of unfinished business waiting until after the November elections for a lame-duck session and doing little to improve this Congress’ reputation as one of the least productive ever.
If lawmakers are campaigning on what they’ve accomplished on Capitol Hill over the past two years, it’s likely to be a short conversation with prospective voters, critics say.
The 113th Congress enacted only slightly more than 163 bills into law in the first 620 days of the two-year session. That’s down from the 173 bills enacted for the 112th Congress and 237 by the 111th Congress over the same time frame, according to GovTrack.us, which monitors congressional legislative activity.
This Congress’ production pace is making the 80th Congress, blasted by President Harry S Truman in 1947 and 1948 as the “Do Nothing Congress,” look downright prolific. That Congress enacted 395 laws in its first year and 511 in its second.
The decline in quantity of enacted bills in the 113th is accompanied by a lack of quality. A July study by the Pew Research Center found that Congress had enacted 108 substantive laws – items that weren’t post office namings, commemorations, or purely ceremonial – by the end of that month.
That was two fewer than the previous Congress over an equivalent period but 35 less than 111th Congress (2009-2010) over the same period.
“The achievement of this session is avoiding a government shutdown and putting everything beyond the election,” said Tom Mann, a senior governance fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “The authorization on Syria is one of the few times we have a sincere vote and not a party-strategy vote, so I guess that’s something.”
The Congress can claim some legislative victories. In addition to a series of short-term budget bills, it reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, revised some of the nation’s farm subsidy and nutrition assistance rules under the Agriculture Act, and increased the Food and Drug Administration’s authority over compounding pharmacies under the Drug Quality and Security Act.
But it once again failed to agree on a long-term budget – part of its constitutional responsibility – and once again funded the government through a short-term Continuing Resolution, like the one it approved this week to keep federal agencies and programs operating at the current annual rate of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11.
They skipped town after approving President Barack Obama’s authorization request to train and arm vetted Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, but skirted any serious debate about a long-term strategy to deal with the terrorist group.
House members and senators left Washington with a long and substantive potential to-do list for a lame-duck session – or the 114th Congress, when it convenes in January 2015: hammering out a budget deal, immigration legislation, and whether or not to impose tighter curbs on domestic surveillance potentially top the agenda when lawmakers return Nov. 12.
The lack of progress on the more pressing issues reflects the politically poisoned atmosphere on Capitol Hill, which has slowed passage of important legislation to a crawl. All issues, large and small, are viewed in electoral terms, according to Mann.
“There’s no interest in law-passing on the Republican side with Obama as president,” Mann said. “Democrats are framing issues that are going nowhere for the election.”
Barrett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, surmises that perhaps it’s not just a lack of will that’s keeping Congress from doing the hard things.
“I think they confront the same kind of problems Obama confronts – they generally know what they want to do, but they don’t quite know how to do it,” Loomis said.
And Mann says the country should expect more of the political paralysis when lawmakers – some of them wounded from defeat – return for the lame duck.
“We’ll predictably get another CR, but nothing else of consequence,” Mann said. “It’s the nature of the beast. We have two electorate cycles – a midterm electorate and a presidential electorate. It’s a consequence of these times of deep partisan politics. Under the circumstances, this is what you get.”