Members of Congress head home for a break with a slim record of
legislation. To some, it’s a sign of polarization so extreme that
normal functioning is no longer possible. To others, it’s an
By Francine Kiefer
WASHINGTON — “Least productive Congress.” That’s the label — much
discussed in the media and the halls of Congress — that history will
apply to lawmakers for their work in 2013. But what does it mean,
exactly? And is it a good, or a bad, thing? Libertarians and some
conservatives might wear such a badge with honor, for instance. Others
see it as a sign that Congress is so polarized that it can no longer
We examine these and other questions about the year just ended for the
Q. What is the basis for the “least productive” label?
A. It measures the number of laws enacted. As lawmakers left town for
the holidays, the 113th Congress had passed into law just over 57
bills. That compares with the previous lowest number since World War
II — 88 in 1995. That was when the GOP held both chambers for the
first time since the 1950s and clashed with President Bill Clinton, a
Democrat. The “do-nothing Congress” is nothing new. In 1948,
Democratic President Harry Truman successfully campaigned against a
GOP Congress that turned away his bills. Still, even the “do-nothing
Congress” managed to pass 395 bills into law by the end of its first
session in December 1947, according to the Congressional Record.
Q. Is the number of laws a good way to measure effectiveness?
A. Many observers will argue “no,” for this obvious reason: “Passing a
lot of bills does not mean doing a lot of good,” says John Pitney, a
political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Those who favor a hands-off, small government argue that a do-nothing
Congress is a good thing — and they can point to 4.1 percent economic
growth in the third quarter as proof. Congress stayed out of the way;
the economy grew anyway.
True about number of laws not meaning much, says Amy Black, an
associate professor of political science at Wheaton College in
Wheaton, Ill. However, she adds, “so much of what’s happening seems to
be because the two chambers can’t agree on anything. To me, that
suggests a serious problem.”
Indeed, here’s what did not happen this year — despite much discussion
from both parties. There was no immigration reform and no universal
background check for gun purchasers. Neither was there tax reform, nor
any dent made in reducing long-term debt by reforming costly Medicare
or Social Security. The Republican House passed some 150 bills, but
they died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. And while the more
moderate Senate managed to pass a bipartisan, comprehensive
immigration bill in June, Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio says he
will not take it up in the House.
Here are some highlights of what both chambers did agree on: disaster
relief for states hit by hurricane Sandy; the Violence Against Women
Act; a modest budget plan for the next two years that averts possible
government shutdowns in January and next fall; the annual defense
policy bill; a bill that renews the ban on plastic guns.
Q. If Congress is so polarized, how did it even get this much done?
A. Crisis helped. The partial government shutdown in October over
defunding “Obamacare” sent American approval of Congress nearly to the
ground. That spurred the Bipartisan Budget Act, which passed handily
in both houses this month.
Another factor: small groups of lawmakers working behind the scenes —
in the case of the budget deal, just two people, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of
Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington. The defense
authorization bill, which was also passed this month, was fashioned by
leaders from the armed services committees of each body. The only way
to get both bills through their respective chambers under a time
crunch was to offer “clean” bills — that is, no amendments allowed.
That modus operandi does not sound very democratic — “a disgrace,” as
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona puts it. So is, to Republicans and a
Democrats, the November bombshell dropped by Senate majority leader
Harry Reid (D) of Nevada. The rule change allows most presidential
nominees to advance to confirmation with a simple majority vote rather
than clear a 60-vote “supermajority” hurdle to cut off debate. As a
result, the Senate pushed through a roster of delayed nominees this
month, but at a cost. In retaliation, Republicans slowed the Senate’s
work to a crawl — forcing all-nighters and punting unfinished business
Q. What’s the outlook for 2014?
A. Notice that what got done in 2013 was small bore. The big issues
were left untouched. Given the political polarization, expect more
small-bore. Long-term unemployment insurance might be extended, if
Democrats find a way to pay for it. Some slice of tax reform might get
done; some steps on immigration might be taken — but that’s asking for
a lot in an election year, when the parties will be interested in
drawing contrasts between themselves. Republicans will continue to
hammer Democrats on Obamacare, and Democrats will pummel Republicans
on economic inequality.
Still looming is the federal debt ceiling, which will be reached in
the first half of 2014. Republicans are already making noises about
concessions they want from Democrats for allowing an increase in the
Responding to a question at his last press briefing of the year on
Friday, President Obama said he would not negotiate with Congress over
the debt limit. “We’re not going to negotiate for Congress to pay
bills that it has accrued,” he said.
Whether this is one of those crises to be avoided — or one to be taken
advantage of — is not yet clear.