Everyone thought it was true, and now there is official confirmation: The 112th Congress, which came to a close last week, was the least productive on record.
Together, the House and Senate enacted the fewest laws, considered the fewest bills and held the lowest number of formal negotiations between them — all measures that helped Congress to a historic low in The Washington Times’ Legislative Futility Index, which tracks floor activity in both chambers.
Congress notched a Futility Index of 330 — making it nearly 10 percent worse than the previous low, set by the 107th Congress in 2001 and 2002. That also happened to be the last time Democrats held the Senate and Republicans controlled the House, which was the same division of power in the 112th Congress.
“There is less willingness to find common ground in things,” said former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, an Ohio Republican who resigned, citing partisanship. “We didn’t used to fight about everything, and today we fight about everything.”
Those fights have slowed the legislative machinery dramatically.
At its peaks, Congress adopted more than 200 conference reports in a two-year session, the Senate met for nearly 3,000 hours while the House met for nearly 2,500 hours, and the chambers combined to enact more than 1,000 laws.
But in 2011 and 2012, Congress produced just 10 conference reports, the Senate met for little more than 2,000 hours and the House for 1,700, and the two chambers combined to enact fewer than 230 laws.
The sloth wasn’t balanced equally. In records stretching back 33 congresses, the House was the 31st least productive, while the Senate was dead last at 33rd.
Republicans blame politics.
“Senate Democrats spent so much floor time on political show votes designed to fail,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Democrats blame the Republicans’ ability to use obstructionist tools such as the filibuster, saying that has made it impossible to even begin debating many bills.
“The Senate is not working,” Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, said last week as he introduced a package of rules changes that would strip away one of the two chances the minority has to filibuster Senate bills.
Ilona Nickels, author of “Why Congress Matters,” said the numbers reflect fundamental changes in the way Congress operates.
She said party leaders increasingly write bills themselves rather than send them through the committee process, and bring them to the floor to set up partisan battles. Meanwhile, rank-and-file members are engaged in continual campaigns where they are asked to draw sharp distinctions with the other party — a bad setup for coming together later to pass legislation.
“By accommodating the schedule to the campaign, and by accommodating the content of legislation to political messaging, you’re going to have less legislation,” Ms. Nickels said. “They’re not going to be here that much and the leaders are going to be shaping the bills that they have to vote on, because the leaders are looking at the bills in terms of a political context.”
Ms. Nickels, though, also cautioned that The Times’ numbers may not tell the whole story.
She said massive legislation, such as President Obama’s health care initiative that was passed in the 111th Congress, counts as only one bill but has far-reaching consequences that isn’t captured in measures of floor activity.
Likewise, spending bills often get rolled into one giant piece of legislation at the end of a year.
“There’s still a lot getting done. It’s just getting done with less examination,” she said.
The Times’ Futility Index looks at six measures of legislative activity for each chamber: time spent in session, number of pages added to the Congressional Record, conference reports between the House and Senate, floor votes, the total number of bills that cleared each chamber, and the number of laws enacted that began in each chamber.
The data, tallied from clerk’s office numbers printed in the Congressional Record, stretches back for 33 congresses.
In the past Congress, the Senate spent 2,031 hours and 56 minutes in session, which ranked 24th best. It amassed 17,461 pages in the Congressional Record, which was 29th out of 33. It cleared a total of 350 bills and had 66 of its own Senate bills signed into law — both the worst on record. It also held 486 floor votes, which ranked 25th.
The House, meanwhile, spent 1,718 hours and 4 minutes in session, which ranked 14th best. It amassed 17,588 pages in the Congressional Record, which was 24th out of 33. It had a record-low number of bills enacted into law, at 162, and had the fewest ever clear the chamber, at 567. But it held the third most floor votes, at 1,602.
Together, the House and Senate reached 10 conference reports, which was also worst on record.
The deep-rooted gridlock has spawned a lively debate among academics. Two longtime congressional scholars, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, laid blame for the calcification squarely at the feet of Republicans.
“The Republican Party has become the home of ideologically extreme insurgents who shun conventionally understood facts, evidence and science, and scorn the very idea of working out compromises with a legitimate political opposition,” they wrote in Foreign Policy in November, which was one of a number of such critiques they levied.
Some held out hope for a better future.
Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, pointed to the California Democrat’s comments in opening the 113th Congress when she called for striving to find common ground.
“We look forward to a 113th Congress where Republicans will work with Democrats to find bipartisan solutions to address our national priorities,” Mr. Elshami said.
But Mr. LaTourette, the former congressman who now leads the Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate Republicans, said the close call House Speaker John A. Boehner had in the speakership election last week suggests the appetite for fights has not diminished.