GOP Looks Busy If You Count Bills but That’s Not the Whole Story

McCarthy touts record-breaking productivity in the House

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said this week the GOP-led House has passed an extraordinary number of bills this Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy touted exceptional GOP productivity in a statement this week, citing smashed records for the number of bills passed out of the chamber this Congress.

Yes, the House has passed more bills this cycle, but it is unclear how meaningful that legislation has been.

“On this front, many would say this Congress’s agenda has been less ambitious than others,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

It is famously difficult to gauge the productivity of any Congress. Simply counting the number of bills passed by either chamber doesn’t take into account how many are purely ceremonial — such as the naming of post offices. 

Some observers, like the Pew Research center, get around that problem by counting only “substantive” laws. By that measure, a Pew report in January concluded that “unified GOP control of the legislative and executive branches didn’t lead to a burst of lawmaking.”

Other groups have tried to pinpoint measures of Congressional “competence,” using metrics like the number of working days or the number of bipartisan co-sponsors on bills, none of which make recent Congresses look very good

And some argue that we should do away with measures of productivity altogether. “Complaints about a ‘do-nothing’ Congress are a bit like lamenting that doctors aren’t performing enough amputations,” an Observer columnist wrote last year.

By McCarthy’s measure, the House has been busy. The House passed 768 bills so far this year, compared to an average of 566 over the past 25 years, according to data from Quorum Analytics, cited in a message Monday from McCarthy’s office about the upcoming House floor schedule.  

Only 195 of those bills have been signed by President Donald Trump, according to CQ Roll Call data. That’s still more than in recent years. The 114th Congress had passed 125 laws at this point, Huder said. The 111th had passed 146.

But this Congress’s major policy initiatives — such as repealing the Affordable Care Act, repealing Dodd-Frank and rewriting the tax code — were launched last year, Huder said. This year, leadership has been less ambitious. Its priorities have included routine authorizations, such as the farm bill and water resources development act, he said. 

Taking credit for the volume of bills the House GOP has passed could be a way of deflecting criticism from impatient constituents, Huder said. “Republicans control all the levers of government, but [there’s] not a ton to show for it,” he said. “Leaders probably want to prove that they’ve been working.”

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