Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Congress ends year with little to show: So, how much do lawmakers work?

WASHINGTON — Congress enacted only 57 new laws this year, but by some measures its members worked long hours.

A federal worker demonstrating for an end to the U.S. government shutdown in front of the U.S. Capitol in October.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House done for the year. The Senate is closing up shop this week. And by most measures, they’re leaving town with little to show for their efforts.

Congress passed 57 bills that would eventually be signed into law this year (the Senate very well could add to that total this week, but it’s expected to focus mainly on presidential nominations and a budget resolution). The Congressional Record keeps a tally, and only twice since 1975 has Congress enacted fewer than 100 laws in a year (1995 and 2011).

Congressional dysfunction has been a go-to complaint for a lot of lawmakers, especially those in the minority party in their respective chambers. Minnesotans are not averse to talking about it either: in 2012, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan ran on trying to improve the form and pace of legislating in D.C., but when the House adjourned last week he was still frustrated by both.

“All the people who study the process say it’s the most unaccomplished Congress in the history of the country,” he said. “In the scheme of things, it’s the budget, national priorities, the taxes, that ultimately make all the difference in this country, and on those issues the Congress has not been fully engaged in the debate.”

Article continues after advertisement

Of course, inaction in the eye of the beholder. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “you would have to point to some successes” in the Senate, where Democrats were able to pass everything from a bipartisan farm bill to an overhaul of the federal immigration system.

But on many of the big issues, senators haven’t been able to reconcile their differences with the GOP-controlled House, though there is hope last week’s budget deal might lead to a bit of a thaw in relations between the two chambers.

“My frustration is that we cannot bring both houses together, and I hope that this is a start,” Klobuchar said.

On that, at least, some House Republicans agree.

“I think what that shows is that Congress is listening to the people, they do want to get something done, and they did,” Rep. Michele Bachmann said.

Two takes on government dysfuction

So, is Congress working hard enough? And did they get anything worth talking about done this session?

On Friday, National Journal looked to dispel the “dead-wrong” notion that members of Congress aren’t trying:

But you might want to think twice before running for Congress in the hopes of getting a cushy desk job. According to a survey by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that for the past 35 years has worked as a sort of consultancy for lawmakers, members of Congress work on average 70 hours a week when they’re in town and almost 60 hours a week when they’re not.

A sample schedule provided to the foundation shows a typical member beginning work with a speaking engagement at 9 a.m. and working straight through until 9:30 p.m. Wash, rinse, repeat the next day — and every day after that.

Article continues after advertisement

The New York Times, however, broke down the numbers and found the 113th Congress doing the least amount of official business — defined as hours in session for the House and days voting in the Senate — of any Congress in years:

The House of Representatives, which ended its business for the year last week, left town with the distinction of having been at work for the fewest hours in a nonelection year since 2005, when detailed information about legislative activity became available.

Not counting brief, pro forma sessions, the House was in session for 942 hours, an average of about 28 hours each week it conducted business in Washington. That is far lower than the nearly 1,700 hours it was in session in 2007, the 1,350 hours in 2005 or even the 1,200 in 2011.

By a similar measure, the Senate was near its recorded lows for days on the floor. Senators have spent 99 days casting votes this year, close to the recent low point for a nonelection year in 1991, when there were 95 voting days.

Taken together, that’s how Congress only managed 57 new laws.

Of course, the Times notes simply counting up enacted laws isn’t a very nuanced way to determine congressional accomplishments. But even using a model to determine laws passed “relative to the salient national issues at the time,” Congress is as gridlocked as its been only once in history: 1999-2001, when the House impeached President Bill Clinton.

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry