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.
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.
Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, did not respond to questions about the lack of action.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart did offer a brief statement that Democrats’ 2012 agenda appears to be the same as in 2011.
“Legislation that will be pushed will be what polls well, rather than what could feasibly be passed into law,” he said.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Reid blamed Republicans in the House for pushing what he said were the wrong issues.
“We’ve spent months on things that used to happen just matter-of-factly,” he said. “I would hope that they understand that everything doesn’t have to be a fight. Legislation is the art of working together, building consensus, compromise.”
“Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory countered that the House is passing legislation, including a budget, which Senate Democrats haven’t accomplished for two years.
Mr. Reid again blamed Republicans, who he said were using the Senate’s minority-friendly rules to defy him.
“The Senate works on consensus. And we haven’t been able to get that because the Republicans, I repeat for the third time, I want to make sure everyone understands this: obstructionism on steroids,” he said.
The Times’ analysis suggested that the Senate is an increasingly broken chamber. All five of the worst performances on record were in the past decade. Four of those were when Democrats were in control and Republicans were in the minority.
In the House, the record was decidedly mixed. Of the worst five years, two were in the 1950s, two were in the 1980s and one was in the past decade.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, blamed Democrats for stalling his party’s bills last year.
“The House has passed nearly 30 jobs bills with bipartisan support, but Senate Democratic leaders have refused to act,” he said. “We are going to remain focused on the American people’s No. 1 issue: jobs. We hope the Democrats who run Washington will change course and join us.”
Less is less
Some conservatives have argued that less activity in Washington is good because it means the government isn’t imposing new rules or creating more programs.
But with so much spending wrapped up in entitlement programs, Congress doesn’t need to be in session for government to grow automatically in many areas.
Last year’s fights were focused chiefly on the budget, spending and taxes. The House took hundreds of votes on spending bills during the early-year debate on the overdue fiscal 2011 measures and again throughout the summer when it debated the 2012 bills.
The 2011 statistics and the grim outlook for 2012 pose the question of whether Congress is simply reflecting a country divided 50-50 along political lines or whether it is no longer reflecting the country at all.
Ms. Binder, the Brookings scholar, said she believes the public is less polarized than the legislators. She said the more likely explanation is that, with the rise of Republicans’ fortunes in the past few decades, each party believes control of all the levers of government is within reach — as it was for the GOP for much of President George W. Bush’s term, and as it was for Democrats in 2009 and 2010.
“That’s a natural consequence of neither side wanting to compromise. They want the whole loaf, and they’d settle for just having an issue to campaign on rather than just come to the middle for a bigger, grander compromise,” she said.
The focus on spending also has taken away some areas of compromise. On non-spending issues, Congress is often able to find a middle ground, such as with Mr. Bush’s education bill in 2001.
Ms. Binder said that is tougher to do in spending fights because the two parties are drastically opposed on fundamental principles.