- 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.

“Never since 1913 has the Senate thus stuck out as such a public-opinion laggard, and the Democratic senators no doubt sense something like that,” he said.

Canceled vacation

Mr. Reid has repeatedly put bills on the Senate floor, only to see them blocked by Republicans calling for the Senate to hold votes on spending and the federal debt — the dominant issues in Washington.

Last week, discontent with the Senate’s pace spilled over onto the floor after Mr. Reid forced the chamber to cancel its traditional weeklong Independence Day break and return to town from Tuesday through Thursday.

He said he wanted senators in town to talk about debt reduction, then scheduled votes on the ongoing military operations in Libya. He then was forced to call off those votes amid GOP objections, pivoting instead to a nonbinding symbolic measure saying that wealthy taxpayers should contribute to a debt solution.

“Maybe we should have taken up some issues that directly affect the deficit, such as ethanol subsidies, such as some of the other tax breaks and loopholes,” said Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican said he has a tough time explaining to constituents that they held just two votes on procedural matters the whole week.

But Mr. Reid said it was Republicans who blocked the chamber from moving to debate the Libya situation last week and saying that’s been a pattern all along.

“One reason we’re not having a lot of votes in recent months is because we can’t get things on the floor. We’re stopped by my Republican friends,” he said.

Mr. Reid, though, also said that much of the business of the Senate doesn’t happen on the floor in votes anymore.

He pointed to the meetings at the White House between President Obama and congressional leaders as a sign of progress on the debt-reduction talks and said having the Senate in session — even if its voting schedule was light — helped facilitate those talks.

“I haven’t heard a single person who is not in Congress complain about our being here,” he said.

House edge

In the House, meanwhile, the 66 bills passed is second-fewest since World War II, and the 14 bills signed into law is third worst. But the chamber has amassed 4,581 pages of activity in the Record, ranking 24th; has taken 130 full votes, ranking 38th; and has spent 515 hours and 12 minutes in session through June 30 — more than all but 15 other sessions.

The majority party has far more control in the House than in the Senate, and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, had promised to open the floor to more debate and amendments.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for the speaker, said the new GOP leadership team has succeeded.

“Under the new majority, the House has already had unprecedented open debates, opening up the institution and allowing the House to work its will,” Mr. Steel said.

Republicans even have won praise from some Democrats for the way the chamber has operated this year. While complaining about limits on a few big debates, top Democrats have said they admire the GOP for allowing all amendments on spending bills.

Lawrence C. Dodd, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said Mr. Boehner needed to find a way to manage legislation while also giving an outlet to the dozens of freshman Republicans eager to exercise the mandate they think they earned in November’s elections.

“He has to let those guys blow off steam. He almost couldn’t stop them. His speakership might even be at risk, were he seriously to try to do that,” Mr. Dodd said.

Mr. Dodd and a colleague, Scot Schraufnagel at the University of Northern Illinois, have conducted research and found that the current arrangement, when one party holds the White House and just one chamber in Congress — which they labeled “quasi-divided” — is the least productive setup for legislative productivity.

By contrast, both unified Congresses — when both chambers and the White House are held by the same party — and divided Congresses - when the House and Senate are controlled by the same party, while the presidency is not — are more likely to produce results.

The professors found that in those quasi-divided Congresses, the House usually takes the lead on major legislation, helped by rules that give the majority more control than in the Senate.

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