- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2015

The 114th Congress is off to the fastest start since the first year of President Obama’s tenure, according to The Washington Times Legislative Futility Index, a measure of floor action that shows the House leading the way in getting more done.

Lawmakers are still operating far below Congress‘ peak years in the 1970s, when they were debating, voting on and passing bills at an astonishing pace. But the first six months of this new Congress have still been a huge improvement on the gridlock of the last five years.

And it’s not just the numbers — members of Congress are debating and passing weightier bills, including a rewrite of the Patriot Act, a long-sought fix of Medicare’s formula for paying doctors, fast-track trade negotiation powers for the White House and, most recently, a long-overdue overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law.

“The pundits told us it would never happen. Republicans and Democrats will never agree on a way to replace No Child Left Behind, they said. But a new Senate that is back to work is proving them wrong,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said last week, just hours before leading his chamber in approving the education bill.

The House and Senate will have to hold a conference to hammer out a final education bill, and that will be a real test of legislative willpower, with House Republicans facing a decision of how much they’re willing to cave on their more conservative measure in order to surmount a potential filibuster in the Senate and earn President Obama’s signature.

But the House has shown it can strike bipartisan deals, and indeed, two of the biggest bills this year have been driven by House Speaker John A. Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: They personally signed off on the Medicare fix deal and backed the bipartisan coalition that wrote the bill stopping the National Security Agency’s phone-snooping program.

In both cases, the Senate was forced to accept the House bill as is — a reversal of the more usual pattern.

That leadership is reflected in the numbers. The House has approved 166 of its own bills this year, and seen 21 of those signed into law. That puts it about middle-of-the-pack in Congressional Record data dating back to 1947.

The Senate has moved slower, passing just 30 of its own bills and seeing only six of them signed into law by Mr. Obama — both on the low end of productivity for the last seven decades.

Still, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said last week that the reason the education bill cleared, and much of the credit for a more productive Congress, belongs to Democrats who have used their filibuster powers more sparingly than the GOP did.

“I understand why my friend the Republican leader is beating his chest about how great the Senate works, because it does work if you have a cooperative minority, and that is what we have done,” he said. “We have worked very hard to try to get this done and, as a result of our work together, we have been able to get it done. But please save everyone the lack of history.”

In 2013, the first year of the previous Congress, when Mr. Reid was majority leader, he set up 18 filibuster votes in the first six months, and won 12 of them.

By contrast, Mr. McConnell set up 33 filibuster votes in the first six months of this year, and won fewer than half.

While being quick to force filibuster votes, Mr. McConnell has also been far more generous in allowing amendments on the Senate floor. He said the chamber took more votes on amendments to the education bill than Mr. Reid allowed on all bills combined in 2014.

That’s reflected in the Legislative Futility Index, which found the Senate’s 220 votes in the first six months of the year were 12th most for any session of Congress over the last seven decades. The House’s 388 total votes ranked 10th.

Other measures of the Futility Index fared worse: The Senate spent more than 600 hours in session in the first six months of the year, while the House had spent 430 hours — both about average for the last seven decades. And the number of bills clearing each chamber and signed into law, while up from 2011 and 2013, is still well below historical averages.

There are opportunities for more cooperation in the months ahead — particularly on criminal justice reform. Mr. Boehner said last week he would like to see a bipartisan compromise worked out by Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, a senior Republican, and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, a senior Democrat, get a floor vote this year.

The issue is also a priority for Mr. Obama, and has backers in the Senate from both parties.

But the biggest goals for Congress the rest of this year will likely be to try to work out a long-term highway spending bill by mid-December, and to keep the government funded into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 — and there, the prospects are grim.

After a fast start on spending bills, both the House and Senate have bogged down. The House has passed six of the 12 bills through the chamber, but saw its work halted after the GOP stumbled over votes related to the Confederate flag in the wake of the South Carolina church shooting earlier this summer.

The Senate, meanwhile, has stalled out entirely when it comes to spending. GOP leaders tried to bring the annual defense spending bill up, but were blocked by a Democratic filibuster that seemed to throw GOP leaders off their game.

Democrats say the Republicans are working off of a bogus budget that boosts defense spending while cutting domestic spending — a blueprint Mr. Obama has vowed to use his veto pen to reject.

Democrats have called for a major budget summit to try to work out new numbers, arguing that’s the only way to avoid another government shutdown showdown in September.

“And if we don’t do so, when we get to Sept. 30, or we get to Dec. 18, let’s not wring our hands and say, ‘How did this happen?’ We will know exactly how it happened, and it will have happened because we refused to sit down,” Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2-ranking House Democrat, chided Republicans last week.

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