There's Less to This Congress Than Meets the Blind Eye

Lawmakers and aides pouring back into the Capitol this week may be tempted to glance at their desk calendars, smack their foreheads and exclaim, “Where did the time go?” And then, with even more bewilderment, they might wonder, “What have we been doing all year?” The July Fourth recess is traditionally considered halftime in the legislative year. In fact, it’s a bit later than that. The Senate’s had roll call votes during 17 weeks so far in 2013 and plans only 16 more weeks in session before the second Friday in December. The House has had votes in 18 weeks but expects just 14 more workweeks before that same Dec. 13 target adjournment. The message for the laborers in the First Session of the 113th Congress is unmistakable: The time is slipping away without much to show for it. And if past is prologue, as has been the case in previous eras, we may have already seen the best this outfit has to offer. Measuring the productivity of Congress is an inexact science, of course, fraught with ideological peril. Just as one group’s claim to promote “reform” (with the modern-day connotation of “improvement’) may be just as credibly labeled policy ruination by the other side, something parallel can be said about lamenting a “do nothing” Congress: What one side represents as urgently in need of federal redress, the other side can say is best left alone. Put another way: Big-government Democrats view the role of Congress as a hammer for pounding a world full of legislative “nails” that fix society’s problems. Small-government Republicans view the Congress that legislates least as the one that functions best. So, in the current climate, rooting for plenty of “productivity” out of the Capitol might fairly be labeled as taking a partisan side. But, still. In the sort of divided government that now exists — the rule rather than the exception for the past four decades — the two sides have always ended up producing more laws in the first six months of each new Congress than they have now. President Barack Obama has signed just 15 bills into law so far in 2013. By the time a similarly divided Congress broke for the Fourth of July two years ago, the number was 23. Six months into his first year as president, and working with a unified Democratic Congress, he had taken out his pen on 40 occasions. This Congress is also off to a slow start compared with the four previous re-elected presidents in the first year of their second terms. By July 4, 2005, George W. Bush had signed 20 measures produced by his fellow Republicans then in charge on the Hill. The comparable figures were 26 for Bill Clinton, 60 for Ronald Reagan and 63 for Richard Nixon — and they each faced a Capitol controlled at least in part by the other side. Looking at all those years, a pattern emerges: About one-quarter of all the legislation cleared in the first year of each Congress gets done before the Fourth of July. If that holds, the 60 or so laws of 2013 would fall far short of the 90 laws of 2011, the smallest output in any year since before World War II. (The 283 laws written during both sessions of the tea-party-infused, fiscal-cliff-flummoxed, presidential-election-obsessed 112th Congress set a postwar record for small productivity, far below the 333 PLs of the 104th, in 1995 and 1996, when Republicans controlled Congress for the first time in 40 years.) Of course, counting the number of public laws is a poor way to measure the quality or importance of the congressional work product. Clearing a bill that revamps all transportation programs, say, is obviously a bigger and more complicated deal than sending the president a measure putting a dead guy’s name on a federal courthouse. But the quantitative midyear data is reliable for predicting annual legislative output. And measuring that output isn’t a bad way to gauge the level of functionality in Congress, given that every measure enacted, no matter how symbolic or tangentially effecting public policy, has nonetheless required a good measure of bipartisan and bicameral staff and lawmaker collaboration. The small number of new laws projected for this year, in other words, is another good indication of the brokenness of the legislative branch. Many of the 15 enacted so far have been front-page news: providing Sandy relief, rewriting the Violence Against Women Act, postponing the next debt ceiling fight, wrapping up last year’s appropriations, exempting air traffic controllers from the sequester, easing the new STOCK Act’s online disclosure rules for executive branch workers, honoring the “four little girls” killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that spurred the civil rights movement. It’s the tiny number of statutes most of the public has heard nothing about that give pause. For every Freedom to Fish Act (PL 113-13) — it overturned Army Corps of Engineers safety restrictions on angling in the Cumberland River as it flowed through Tennessee and Kentucky — there are a dozen other parochial problem-solvers or niche-industry rifle shots yearning to emerge. All it would take to show the voting public it can function is a Congress that once again values cooperation and collegiality — and is able to discover reservoirs of both once the public spotlight is turned another way.