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People say Congress doesn’t get anything done; what do the numbers say?

There’s really no sugar-coating it: the country is more dissatisfied with Congress than ever before. In November, polls found that only one out of every ten Americans approves of our august legislative branch.

People disapprove of Congress for a lot of reasons: hot-air rhetoric, pervasive scandal, the perpetual campaign. But for many, the problem with Capitol Hill is that Congress just doesn’t get much work done. And considered one way, they’re right: If you break down legislative activity by the numbers, it’s clear that 2015 is the latest in a series of historically unproductive years in Congress.

Here’s the in-depth look at what Congress did — or didn’t do — this year, by the numbers.

First, here’s the number of bills that got signed into law over the past 30 years:

Bills that became law

110 bills were passed by Congress and got signed by President Obama in 2015. Only three times in the last 30 years has Congress passed fewer bills. In two of those instances, 2013 and 1995, the federal government shut down for at least several weeks.

The circumstances of 2015 make Congress’ lack of productivity, at least in these terms, seem especially stark. For one, there was no government shutdown. Also, Republicans entered in January with a new majority in the Senate, and their strongest House majority in nearly 70 years. Even Obama signaled his willingness to work with congressional Republicans when possible.

Needless to say, it didn’t happen that way.

An important caveat here is that, historically, Congress introduces and considers more bills in the first year of its session, and passes more bills into law in the second year of its session. The end of a congressional session is a time for lawmakers to clear through the backlog of (mostly) non-controversial bills that have accumulated over the past two years.

With that in mind, it’s more instructive to compare 2015 to 2013, 2011, 2009, and so on and so forth:

Bills that became law, first-years only

Clearly, this year proved more productive than 2013 and 2011, — there was no government shutdown, after all. Both of those years also featured divided Congresses — a Democratic Senate and Republican House — where gridlock is far easier to come by.

So, 2015 looks pretty bad in comparison to, for example, 1997, in which a GOP Congress managed to pass 157 bills into law with a Democrat in the White House. In 1991, too, a Democrat-held Congress got 245 bills into law with a Republican president. This year, Republicans can’t place too much of the blame on Obama’s veto pen: he only exercised that right five times.

Another caveat is that not all bills are created equal: a good chunk of bills that get to the White House are ceremonial items, like statutes to rename a post office in honor of someone, that get overwhelmingly approved by members.

To this Congress’ credit, it passed a lot of bills of substance in relation to the ceremonial ones. Out of the 110 bills Congress passed this year, we determined 25 were ceremonial and 85 were substantive — not a bad ratio. Several bills in particular were especially big deals: the overhaul of K-12 education policy, the five-year transportation bill, the re-write of the Patriot Act, and the two-year budget deal.

Sidenote: for those keeping score at home, four Minnesota members of Congress had bills or versions of their bills signed into law this year: Rep. John Kline (the big K-12 education bill), Rep. Tim Walz (a veterans’ mental health bill), Rep. Erik Paulsen (a bill to ease the tax burden on families of public safety workers), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (a bill to rename a post office for former Rep. Jim Oberstar).

Bills and resolutions introduced

If you want to go by another metric, though, Congress in 2015 was pretty productive — members introduced a ton of legislation. Members introduced 11,712 bills, resolutions, and amendments, the most in six years. 6,739 bills total were introduced, the fourth highest total in 30 years.

Again, because lawmakers introduce more bills in the first half of a Congress than the second, odd years will have more activity. But 2015 measures up well to other first years, rivalling 2009, the last time one party entered a session of Congress controlling both chambers.

It’s probably best, then, to interpret the flurry of bills as a Republican Congress flexing its muscles and putting forth piles of policy — even if they didn’t always gain traction.

Percentage of bills that were considered in committee

Most of those bills fared poorly in each stage of the legislative process. In 2015, about 57 percent of bills introduced received committee consideration. That’s even lower than 2013 and 2011, when 62 and 67 percent of bills did, respectively. (72 percent of bills got committee consideration in 1999.)

What’s going on?

So, why has 2015 — and, for that matter, the past few years — been so unproductive? Observers have floated a number of theories over the past few years. At the end of 2014, Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post argued the lack of results was directly tied to increased polarization on both sides. He found as the ideological gap between the parties increased, amount of bills passed into law decreased. It would follow that the new Congress, which features more extreme members of both parties, is continuing this trend in 2015.

Others argue that polarization is a problem, but that congressional gridlock is clearly one party’s fault — the GOP’s. In 2012, at the end of only the third least productive Congress in recent history, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein argued the congressional GOP has gotten so radical, and unwilling to fall in line with leadership, that it has become very hard for Congress to get much done.

These aren’t new trends, but they’ve boiled over in 2015 — look no further than to the House GOP’s ouster of Boehner as testament to that. But there’s reason to believe, from a productivity perspective, that things could get even worse in 2016.

Of course, counting the raw number of bills that become law isn’t a foolproof gauge of how good or effective Congress is, but since lawmaking is ostensibly a legislature’s function, the number of bills introduced and laws passed does tell us something about Congress’ productivity.

What lies ahead

So, what does this data mean for 2016? Conventional wisdom in politics has always been that election years, particularly presidential years, put a damper on lawmaking. To a certain extent, that’s true — members spend less time in session due to campaigning, and larger, more ambitious legislation has a harder time moving because vulnerable incumbents are generally loath to take a controversial stand close to election day.

Most lawmakers openly acknowledge this effect, and in conversations, some talk about the next calendar year like it’s a black hole, and have worked to get things done before it’s too late.

But looking only at the number of bills passed, Congress actually gets more legislation out the door in election years — some amount of that consists of clearing out more ceremonial items.

Time will tell if 2016 is a historically bad year for Congress. There’s some cause for optimism: The close of legislative business in 2015 saw congressional leaders setting the table for a potentially productive 2016. Speaker Paul Ryan, along with many in both parties, would like to see comprehensive tax reform make it through Capitol Hill next year, for example. And Congress did get some landmark compromises through this year.

Then again, three senators are running for president, and 28 are running for re-election. Then there’s the 400-odd perennial candidates over in the House.

You might want to brace yourself for 2016.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/24/2015 - 10:55 am.

    “That government is best

    which governs least.”

    – Henry David Thoreau
    Civil Disobedience

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/25/2015 - 10:20 am.


      If one reads a bit: The message is not “no government” but “better government” with a “conscience”

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 12/26/2015 - 11:07 am.

        More Info

        Here is an interesting link. And looking at the number of pages in my other link, I think Jefferson and Thoreau would be appalled at how big and intrusive government has become.

        “Hence, government was to be shaped and determined by certain principles, not by some set rule for its size or scope without reference to those other principles. Experimentation and the will of the people would resolve the question of size, not some arbitrary limitation.

        “We are now vibrating between too much and too little government, and the pendulum will rest finally in the middle.” –Thomas Jefferson to S. Smith, 1788.
        Such a ‘happy mean’ does not suggest that Jefferson was proposing the least government. Rather, it suggests that a theoretical statement specifically defining the scope of government is not an accurate description of his position. The limitations on government he proposed can better be discovered from examining his views on the proper function of government.

        Of course, Jefferson certainly did not believe in “big government.” Even in his time, he felt that there was more government than what was needed.

        “I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.” –Thomas Jefferson to W. Ludlow, 1824.”

        • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 12/31/2015 - 06:31 pm.

          No Longer Relevant

          It’s very nice to sit and reflect on what these men said more than 200 years ago, but what was said and done more than 200 years ago is irrelevant today in 2015. These men had no idea what society would look like in 2015.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/02/2016 - 10:27 pm.

            Please explain further. Do you really think that human nature and behavior have changed that much?

            My view is that though how we communicate and travel has changed greatly, overall we humans are very similar. Please study the Roman Empire’s rise and fall if you doubt me. Or any of the great philosophers…

  2. Submitted by John Appelen on 12/24/2015 - 12:16 pm.

    Excellent Piece

    Excellent piece though I agree with Dennis that I think we should grade Congress on how well they work to simplify government and make it more productive / effective, not on how many laws they add to the books.

    This is an interesting link… Especially the “Total Pages in the Code of Federal Regulations (1950 – 2014)” graph.

    No wonder the cost of government and the cost of complying with all of these laws have becoming somewhat overwhelming to citizens and businesses. As I often say, American consumers want low cost high quality goods and services. And all of the above noted costs make it harder for companies operating in this country to compete globally.

    No wonder Samsung, Hyundai, Subaru, LG, Lenova, etc have made such HUGE gains in our domestic market. They don’t have the American regulatory burden, but they do have the American consumers.

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