Congress logs most futile legislative year on record

Outlook for House, Senate also shows scant accomplishment for ‘12 session

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It’s official: Congress ended its least-productive year in modern history after passing 80 bills — fewer than during any other session since year-end records began being kept in 1947.

Furthermore, an analysis by The Washington Times of the scope of such activities as time spent in debate, number of conference reports produced and votes taken on the House and Senate floors found that Congress set a record for legislative futility by accomplishing less in 2011 than any other year in history.

The Senate’s record was weakest by a huge margin, according to the futility index, and the House had its 10th-worst session on record.

Of the bills the 112th Congress did pass, the majority were housekeeping measures, such as naming post office buildings or extending existing laws. Sometimes, it was too difficult for the two chambers to hammer out agreements. More often, the Senate failed to reach agreement within the chamber.

That left much of the machinery of the federal government on autopilot, with the exception of spending, where monumental clashes dominated the legislative session.

“Absent unified party control with a bolstered Senate majority, I think it’s just very hard to get things done, particularly in a period when revenues aren’t growing and the decisions are how to cut, and how to cut in the long term,” said Sarah Binder, who studies Congress as a Brookings Institution scholar and professor at George Washington University. “Congress just isn’t very good at solving long-term problems.”

The futility record could be short-lived. The full House returns from a monthlong Christmas break on Tuesday to begin the second session, but all sides expect election-year paralysis, meaning some of the usually routine bills may run into trouble.

Measuring futility

The Times‘ analysis looked at six specific yardsticks for legislative activity: the amount of time each chamber spent officially in session; the total number of bills that passed; the number of floor votes each chamber took; the number of pages amassed in the Congressional Record, which records floor debates; the number of conference reports written; and the number of bills each chamber had signed into law by the president.

Using the Resume of Congressional Activity, printed in the Congressional Record at the end of each year since 1947, The Times ranked each session on all six of those measures, then compiled that into a “legislative futility” index.

In 2011, the Senate ranked poorly on all the measures relating to bills and was in the lower half on votes and pages in the record. The only yardstick by which it performed well was on time spent in session, where it logged more than 1,100 hours — slightly better than the median.

Combining those rankings gave the Senate a futility score of 70, or 19 points lower than the Senate’s record of 89 established in 2008.

The House record was more mixed. It spent more time in session than all but 10 other congresses, compiled the eighth highest number of pages of debate and took more floor votes than all but two other congresses. But it passed the fewest number of bills in its history and had fewer bills signed by the president than any other Congress and shared the same poor performance on conference reports.

Combining those rankings gave the House a futility score of 144, making it 10th worst.

Blame game

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