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

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

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.”

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.

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

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/16/2013 - 11:57 am.

    Their job

    is to preserve, protect and defend your constitutional rights. It is not to pass more laws.

    Every time congress passes a new law, the government has more power and you have less freedom. The only people who grade a congress by how many laws they pass are people who want bigger, more intrusive government.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/16/2013 - 12:16 pm.

    “Working hard” is beside the point

    When you have the House of Representatives controlled by a party which is determined to prevent the Executive Branch from governing, it doesn’t make any difference how much work the members of that House are doing or how many hours. It all comes down to sabotage by one party, indeed, a lunatic fringe of that one party.

    The Republican party has had its day for the last 30 years and it’s policies have all been abysmal failures. It has no principles, no new ideas or anything to offer but obstruction and blackmail. I hope the Senate does the right thing and rejects the compromise on the recently announced capitulation to these obstructionists euphemistically called a a budget settlement. If they think they can win the right to lead and govern this country by blackmail and obstruction through shutdowns or threats of default, then let them try.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 12/16/2013 - 12:28 pm.

    Political Nonsense

    Being a politician is hard work. It has turned into a 365 days a year 24/7 project to raise funds so they can keep campaigning to save their own job. Pandering to special interest groups takes a lot of time and energy. They have to be politicians because with their work ethic they wouldn’t get far if they have to get a real job with the rest of us. The Republicans are just now starting to figure out the tea party is bad news for them, which the voters figured out a long time ago. Now the Republicans have to campaign against the tea party too. Why be a politician? The pay is great fringe benefits are great, health care is great, perks are great, and the pension is great. Of course they are great because they had plenty of free time to set it all up for themselves. It will be interesting to see how long the voters put up with all the political nonsense.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/17/2013 - 11:27 am.

    Working hard

    Of course our Congresscritters work hard. The question is, “for whom.” Dennis Tester is right–their job isn’t necessarily to make laws. However, he was wrong as to what their job actually is. He’s thinking of the wrong branch. Another thing their job shouldn’t be–getting re-elected. Our Congresscritters are working too hard at campaigning and not enough time being trapped in a room with each other. They’re working too hard on getting kickbacks and not enough time actually understanding (and empathizing!) how most Americans actually live. On average, Congresscritters start out in the upper echelons of the socioeconomic ladder, and they only move up once they’re placed in Washington. How does this change? We start voting smarter, and get those other branches of government to actually convict and punish Congresscritters for crimes against the nations citizens.

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