Members Offered Many Bills but Passed Few

Posted November 26, 2008 at 3:20pm

Members of the 110th Congress introduced nearly 14,000 pieces of legislation, more than any Congress since 1980, but only about 3.3 percent of the bills actually were signed into law, the lowest success rate since 1976.

While the percentage of bills that pass has dropped significantly over the past two decades, the number of ceremonial bills — naming post offices and other federal buildings — has risen dramatically, squashing the substantive work of Congress into fewer and fewer pieces of legislation.

Of the 449 bills that became law in the 110th Congress, 144 of them — 32 percent — did nothing more than rename a federal building. In comparison, the 109th Congress passed 121 ceremonial bills, about 25 percent of the 483 bills that became law. The 104th Congress — the first time in 40 years that Republicans held a majority in the House — passed 337 bills, and only 35 were ceremonial naming bills, or just over 10 percent. No Congress since 1975 has introduced fewer pieces of legislation than the 7,991 bills and resolutions offered in the 104th Congress.

Congressional experts say it is difficult to judge the impact of legislation simply by counting the number of bills passed. For instance, the 110th Congress passed the $700 billion financial market stabilization bill in October, which might have a dramatic impact on financial institutions for decades but is only one bill. This Congress also raised the minimum wage, passed a new GI bill and passed a farm bill over a presidential veto, all significant legislative accomplishments.

The overall number of bills passed by Congress has also declined over time with the rise of omnibus legislation, which can roll dozens of individual measures into a single bill.

As the number of bills passed by Congress has declined, Members appear to have taken to introducing bills as a way of establishing a public position on an issue or making a symbolic gesture.

For instance, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced 67 bills during the 110th Congress, including a bill “to prevent the president from encroaching upon the Congressional prerogative to make laws” by eliminating signing statements that allow the White House to interpret legislative intent. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) introduced 70 bills, including a bill “to end membership of the United States in the United Nations.” Neither bill became law or even received a vote in committee.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced 88 bills, more than any other Member of the House in the 110th Congress though some bills were introduced several times as different versions.

On Jan. 29, Maloney introduced seven bills to limit tariffs on individual chemicals, none of which became law. Two bills that Maloney sponsored have become laws since January 2007, but several others were incorporated into other legislation that became law.

“Each Member goes about the job differently, but I always thought legislators should be pushing and passing solutions, and introducing legislation is one of the best tools we are given,” Maloney said.

In the Senate, each Member tends to sponsor more bills, befitting their larger constituencies. In the 110th Congress, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced more legislation than anyone else — 163 bills — despite spending much of the session campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton spokesman Dan Schwerin told Roll Call in an e-mail, “Thanks for recognizing what a productive term this has been for Senator Clinton. … [A]s you well know, legislation can have an impact from the moment it is introduced, by shining a spotlight on a neglected issue or by introducing ideas that influence the debate and eventually find their way into other legislation. Senator Clinton is proud to have been such a champion for New York this term.”

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that even the most active Congresses in the past 50 years or so have passed no more than two dozen pieces of major legislation. “There is only so much that Congress can do,” Binder said. The 110th Congress can claim five or six major bills, putting it “on par with recent low- productivity Congresses.” Binder said this record is reflective of the past decade or so of divided government that has made it difficult to pass major legislation.

Binder also pointed out that beyond making laws, Members also have a responsibility to represent the concerns and interests of their constituents. In that sense, introducing a bill that is doomed might still be an important part of representing the district, where many citizens want to see an issue advanced even if the bill is not going to pass.

Casey Hynes contributed to this report.