- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

In terms of basic legislating, this year’s Senate isn’t the worst on record — but it is the second-worst, trailing only last year’s historic calcification, according to The Washington Times’ third semiannual Legislative Futility Index.

The House, meanwhile, is doing somewhat better, notching a decidedly middle-of-the-pack performance when compared with congressional records going back more than six decades, to just after World War II.

The Senate’s historic poor performance over the last two years is so bad that last week the top Senate Democrat said he is considering trying to change the filibuster rules because it has become too easy and too common for a minority of senators to halt business. But Republicans say the Democrats’ fear of holding tough votes has kept the Senate from doing much business.

Whichever party is to blame, the result is clear: The chamber is doing less legislating now than at any other time since 1947, when data were first compiled and published.

The futility index uses basic yardsticks of activity such as time spent in session, number of pages compiled in the Congressional Record, number of bills passed and votes taken, as a proxy for activity. Numbers were taken from the Resume of Congressional Activity compiled by House and Senate clerks at the end of each month, and The Times ranked the chambers then calculated a futility score for each chamber at the halfway point of the year.

Through June 30, the Senate had a futility score of 16.4 — nearly double last year’s historically low 8.6 score, and barely lower than 1989, now in third place. The House, meanwhile, scored 34 on the Futility Index, putting it just in the top half when compared with previous House sessions through the halfway mark.

Combined, they marked the 12th-slowest pace in the past 66 years. That is nine places better than last year’s showing for the two chambers together.

Frustration over the lack of action has been evident in the halls of the Capitol, where both sides readily acknowledge little is getting done — and point fingers at each other.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, last week said that if his party keeps control of the Senate next year, he will move to change the rules to prohibit filibusters of procedural votes. Filibusters require 60 votes to end, which is a high bar to clear, and their use has become increasingly common over the past decade.

Mr. Reid said the Senate spends too much time even debating whether to bring a bill to the floor — much less voting on the bill itself.

“Rather than debate important policy measures, we spend far, far, far too much time staying around looking at each other, simply waiting for the clock to run out on another filibuster,” he said Tuesday.

But his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the problem wasn’t Republican obstruction, but rather Mr. Reid’s hesitance to have his chamber vote on controversial issues that could be used against Democrats in campaigns.

“I would say to my good friend the majority leader, we don’t have a rules problem, we have an attitude problem. When is the Senate going to get back to normal?” the Kentucky Republican told Mr. Reid on the Senate floor last week.

He said the minority’s rights to debate and vote traditionally have distinguished the Senate from the House, where the majority controls not only the bills that reach the floor, but even what amendments can be debated.

Whom to blame has become a hot topic across Washington. Two respected scholars, Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, wrote a commentary in The Washington Post in April saying the GOP was at fault for being “ideologically extreme” and “scornful of compromise.”

Mr. Reid approvingly cited their conclusions on the Senate floor, but Mr. McConnell dismissed the two men as having an ideological agenda.

“They are ultra ultraliberals,” he said. “Their problem with the Senate is the Democrats don’t have 60 votes anymore. Their problem is the Republicans control the House. Their views about dysfunctionality of the Senate carry no weight, certainly with me.”

The Times’ Futility Index doesn’t delve into which party is to blame, but it does track the differences between the Republican-controlled House — where legislating is somewhat easier — and the Democrat-controlled Senate, where parliamentary procedures give the minority party more leverage.

According to The Times index, the Senate ranks poorly on four of the five yardsticks: time spent in session, number of pages in the Congressional Record, number of bills passed through the chamber, and number of Senate bills signed into law by the president. The only one where it even cracks the top half of congresses is the number of votes held — 172 roll-call floor votes as of June 30.

That is largely because of several major measures such as the five-year farm bill, where Mr. Reid allowed dozens of amendments to be offered.

The House has yet to take up the farm bill, as Republican leaders there grapple with trying to win enough votes for passage.

Still, the House has passed a budget and most of its appropriations bills this year, while the Senate hasn’t acted on any.

Thanks to its action on spending — and a host of bills to repeal President Obama’s agenda — the House cracked the top half on three of the five yardsticks in the index: hours in session, number of bills passed through the chamber and floor votes taken.

Some conservatives argue for less legislative activity, saying that the more Congress is in session, the more it spends and imposes new regulations. But with much of government already on autopilot, that spending will continue unless Congress takes action to curb it.

Indeed, when the Futility Index was matched against the budget, the years that the government ran a surplus were more likely to be active than years the government ran a deficit.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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