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Yes, it’s the ‘least productive Congress’ ever, but what does that mean?

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 achievement.

“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 govern.

We examine these and other questions about the year just ended for the 113th Congress.

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.

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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 few 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 into 2014.

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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 debt limit. 

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.