- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 10, 2016

Congress began to pull out of the legislative doldrums last year but still has a long way to go before it returns to full health and the kind of freewheeling legislative action of previous decades, according to The Washington Times Legislative Futility Index, which found that despite some big bipartisan deals, the Senate remains a major stumbling block to passing bills.

Under Republican control last year, for the first time since 2006, the Senate did better than the previous four years under Democratic control — but still notched the fifth-worst year on record, passing relatively few bills and watching power shift to the House, which drove several of the major bipartisan deals that did get signed into law.

Those deals helped boost the House to a slightly better year than the Senate, with the lower chamber scoring the 13th worst year according to The Times’ index, which measures floor activity using data from the Congressional Record’s Resume of Congressional Activity stretching back to 1947.

Despite bipartisan bills — a multiyear highway funding bill, an end to the National Security Agency’s phone-records snooping, a permanent increase in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, a rewrite of education policy and a massive year-end spending deal — neither Democrats nor Republicans were particularly happy with 2015.

“Numbers are numbers, but I think all numbers have to be looked at in context. And the context of what you had last year was — you had divided government,” said Rep. Bill Flores, Texas Republican and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “You had a House that was very busy legislatively, and it worked a pretty decent, regular order process. Then you had a Senate, where you had obstructionist Democrats who kept blocking things from coming to the floor.”

Democrats, meanwhile, said 2016 is already off to a bad start, with the first major vote in the House coming on a bill to repeal major parts of Obamacare and to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. President Obama has already vetoed that bill.

“We’re off to a bad start when the first bill of the session is a political sound bite — to repeal, for the 62nd time, the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the House Rules Committee, which helps control what bills reach the floor and what amendments are allowed to be offered.

“Most of the bills that come through are bills that are going nowhere. They’re message bills. I understand it; maybe there is a place for that. But there also needs to be a place for substantive legislation to fix some of the problems,” Mr. McGovern said.

With 69 years of data, The Times’ index gives a sense for activity in the modern political era, dating back to just after World War II.

According to the data, the Senate passed a total of 180 bills in 2015, the fourth-least of all time, and just 36 of its own bills were signed into law, the fifth-worst in the past seven decades. The House passed 361 bills total, the 22nd worst, but just 77 of its own bills were signed into law — the fifth-worst on record.

Both chambers did better at voting, with the Senate’s 339 recorded floor votes in the top half of all time, and the House’s 703 total votes topping all but six other years on record. The Senate also spent 1,073 hours in session, and the House spent 804 hours in session — both about middle of the pack for the past seven decades. The Senate compiled about 9,000 pages in the Congressional Record, which was at the low end, while the House added more than 10,700, again near the middle of the pack.

Republicans hold a 54-46 edge over the Democratic caucus in the Senate — a reversal from the 55-45 majority Democrats had the previous Congress — but the reversal did little to break the partisan gridlock that has gummed up the upper chamber for years.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, disputed The Times’ formula but declined to comment for this article.

A spokeswoman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the successes the chamber did notch last year happened when Republicans attempted to forge deals instead of working to roll back Mr. Obama’s agenda.

“When Republicans are willing to work towards bipartisan compromise instead of caving to the extreme right wing of their party, Democrats are there to work with them. That’s why the Senate passed a number of bills last session with majority Democratic support,” said Kristen Orthman, the spokeswoman. “We hope that this year, Republicans will work with us to pass bills to help the middle class. If they do, we stand ready to work with them.”

One area where Mr. Reid said Mr. McConnell has been particularly deficient is in approving Mr. Obama’s nominations.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Senate confirmed the fewest judges of any year dating back to the 1960s.

Some of the bills Congress did pass and Mr. Obama signed into law were big, and included solutions to problems that have dogged Capitol Hill for years.

The Medicare doctor payments bill was one such deal — changing a payment formula that Congress had patched nearly every year dating back to the beginning of the century. Then-House Speaker John A. Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck the deal, which boosted payments permanently, in exchange for future changes such as requiring wealthier seniors to pay more for some Medicare coverage.

The education bill was also long overdue and eviscerated much of the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law that had become a political problem for both Democrats and Republicans.

Some Republicans questioned whether it makes sense to judge Congress on the amount of legislating it does in Washington.

“I don’t think the number of bills introduced is a good metric for how Congress is doing,” said Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican. “The right metric is rather we’re protecting liberty. That’s our job — to come here, follow the Constitution, preserve liberty.”

With an election looming at the end of this year, Republican leaders are already setting low expectations for accomplishments.

Mr. McConnell, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” program Sunday, said the biggest accomplishment he wants to achieve this year is passing all 12 annual spending bills separately.

“I think we ought to, on a bipartisan basis, step up to the challenge of getting every single bill that funds the government passed individually, not in a big clump of bills at the end, and get it on the president’s desk. That would be noteworthy and hasn’t happened in two decades,” he said.

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