- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big issues are piling up in Congress, but halfway through the year, the Senate is on pace for its least productive legislative session since records were first kept, and the House is also operating at a clip well below normal, according to an analysis of floor activity by The Washington Times.

Congressional analysts say the action regularly stalls when power is shared between the two parties, but this year’s slow pace, particularly in the Senate, is at a historic low even by standards of divided government.

Through June 30, the upper chamber had passed the fewest bills since the Congressional Record started keeping monthly data in 1947. The Senate had also amassed the second-fewest total number of pages in the Record — a measure of floor action — and notched the sixth-fewest number of floor votes.

One senator called the pace of activity “glacial,” and the nadir may have come this month, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, canceled the chamber’s Independence Day vacation to work on debt reduction, only to hold two meaningless votes and then adjourn early.

Much of the real action has been shunted behind closed doors, where big deals are worked out and then offered to lawmakers in all-or-nothing votes.

Analysts said Senate Democrats are likely trying to shield the chamber from having to take difficult votes ahead of what’s expected to be a tough election cycle next year.

Harry Reid has been facing a major problem of arithmetic,” said David Mayhew, a political science professor at Yale with whom The Times shared its findings. “He has only 53 Democrats; he cannot count on any Republicans at all; and a dozen or so of those Democrats must be terrified by the election results of last November. So it’s hard for Reid to mobilize floor majorities. Given that problem, why move measures along at all?”

Across the Capitol, the Republican-run House is doing only slightly better. Through June 30, it had passed the second-fewest bills on record, but was above average in both time spent in session and number of recorded votes held, earning it a tie for 10th least productive session overall in The Times‘ analysis.

Together, the House and Senate combine to account for the third least productive Congress on record, trailing only 1981 and 1989.

Measuring futility

The Times analysis looked at five yardsticks for legislative activity: the amount of time each chamber has spent in session; the total number of bills that have passed; the number of floor votes each chamber has taken; the total pages amassed in the Congressional Record; and the number of bills originating in each chamber that have been signed into law.

Using the Resume of Congressional Activity, printed in the official Congressional Record at the end of each month, The Times ranked each chamber’s activity on all five measures through June 30 for each year, then combined the rankings into a “legislative futility” index.

By that reckoning, 2011 is the worst year for the Senate since complete records were first compiled in 1947. It has passed just 28 bills, the worst in the 65 years on record, and compiled 4,308 pages of activity in the Congressional Record, which was second worst. The nine bills it has seen signed by President Obama are the sixth-worst total, while the 104 votes rank 15th and the 541 hours in session is 19th.

Asked for comment on the analysis, Mr. Reid’s office requested that The Times provide the data used. The Times provided the information, but Mr. Reid’s office did not respond to repeated follow-up messages this week.

Mr. Mayhew, the Yale political scientist, said the Senate is in a position it hasn’t been in for nearly a century, after last year’s elections turned over House control to the GOP but left the upper chamber under Democratic control.

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