The Least Productive Congress in History?

Authored By 
David Mayhew
Blog contributor 
Resident Faculty Fellow

This article was published in Politico on December 23, 2013.

Is the current Congress the least productive in history, as many are alleging? The question calls for a yardstick. One current answer tracks the numbers of “public laws enacted” or “bills passed” by each Congress going back to World War II. By that measure, the 113th Congress has passed just 58 laws so far, the lowest since 1947.

But this is not an especially helpful yardstick, accurate as it may be in its own terms. Consider the details. The top performer in most laws passed turns out to be President Dwight Eisenhower’s second Congress of 1955-56. That Congress was hardly a zero, but its peak ranking on this scale is, well, weird. For one thing, shouldn’t President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Congress of 1965-66 rank higher? For full two-year Congresses, more intuitive is the rank of least productive for President Barack Obama’s post-midterm Congress of 2011-12, with its partisan bickering and stalemates. But then we learn that nearly as unproductive, pretty far down in the basement also, was Obama’s first Congress of 2009-10. This Congress was the source of the $787 billion stimulus, the Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Care Act—landmark legislation, whatever one’s view of it.

So, this low reading for 2009-10 makes no sense at all. Obviously, something is wrong with our yardstick. There is a weighting problem. In fact, some congressional enactments are vastly more important than others. And there is a bundling problem. The measure takes no account—it cannot—of Congress’s creeping tendency over the decades to bundle a lot of items into single big bills. It is a clear trend. Regarding the 2009 stimulus, journalist Michael Grunwald has written a book characterizing it as a “new New Deal” all by itself. The law was a Democratic wish list. Beyond its macroeconomic thrust, it offered sizable tax cuts as well as innovative investments in electronic medicine, clean energy, infrastructure, homelessness prevention, food stamps, education and much else. Fifty years ago all this would likely have been done in a series of freestanding enactments, not just one act.

Where does this leave us? For comparisons across time, we shouldn’t just count bills or laws. We need to use our heads and consult the history. Wrap-up stories where journalists assess the productivity of each Congress are a plausible source. What is “productivity”? Let us say that it hinges on laws that alter existent government policy to a significant degree. Of course, to alter existent policy is not always a great idea. The more laws, the better would be an insane standard. But change is change, and there is always a certain bustle toward it.

With these guidelines in mind, how should we regard the tea party-dogged Congress of 2011-12? Was it really the “least productive” ever (until now)? Well, probably not. In historical terms, focusing on just domestic legislation, it ranks down low with Truman’s last Congress of 1951-52, Eisenhower’s last Congress of 1959-60 and Clinton’s last Congress of 1999-2000. The McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952, the Landrum-Griffin Labor Reform Act of 1959 and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Act of 1999 were the memorable products of those years, and not a lot else. There is a certain similarity to 2011-12, which brought the Budget Control Act of 2011 (including sequestration) and the “fiscal cliff” package at that Congress’s close, and not much else. Though actually, the conjunction of those two fiscal moves was a big deal, cutting as they did some $2.7 trillion from deficit and debt.

But all those were low-yield Congresses. The Congress of 2011-12, as in the earlier instances, took place against the backdrop of a divided public, complaints by one or both parties that their ideas were not being enacted and a media drumbeat that Congress wasn’t doing anything.

How about the current Congress? It is only half-finished, so we need to be careful. Going by the historical record, the output so far is indeed very lean. The recent December budget deal rearranging sequestration is pretty much it. Probably, for a year just after a presidential election, only 1953 has been as lean in significant domestic policy enactments. (Eisenhower, then newly elected, hadn’t put his mind to a legislative program yet.)

There is no shortage of legislative aims for calendar 2014. We are hearing about immigration, agriculture, patent reform, fast-track trade authority, an intelligence reset, Iran sanctions, tax reform and a minimum wage hike. There is also pressure to repeal, delay or roll back the Affordable Care Act. Repeals of laws, no less than anything else, are changes from the policy status quo. For decades after 1947, the Democrats wouldn’t give up on repealing the Taft-Hartley Labor-Relations Act (or a key part of it) as one of their main legislative aims, although they never succeeded. Right now, we have another year to go. The 113th Congress has plenty of room to redeem itself as a producer of laws.

Since 2010, fiscal fixes have dominated the enactment list. There is a sense of déjà vu. That was true also of 1982 through 1997, when a sequence of eight pull-up-your-socks budget deals (including a Social Security reset and the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings spending caps) emanated from Capitol Hill. Then, in the late 1990s, the economy upticked, government revenue poured in and the long-term deficit/debt problem went to a back shelf. We shall see whether that happens again.

In the end, fiscal control is a matter of congressional enactments, but it grinds out with special difficulty. Neither party makes it a top priority, presidents tackle it at a cost and worrying about it later is an easy out for both politicians and the public.

David Mayhew is Sterling Professor of Political Science and a Resident Faculty Fellow at ISPS.