Here's President Obama at a fundraiser Wednesday night for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Houston, Texas: "This has become the least productive Congress in modern history, recent memory. And that's by objective measures, just basic activity."
So, is he right? And, if he is, so what?
We've written extensively on the productivity debate in this space. So, let's start with the facts first. And the facts are these: In terms of actual laws or bills passed, the 113th Congress is headed toward historic levels of unproductivity.
Here's a comparison of how many laws the 113th has passed as compared to previous Congresses:
At the moment, according to the Federal Register, there have only been 23 public laws enacted in the second session of the 113th Congress -- a number that virtually ensures that this Congress will pass the fewest number of laws of any in history. (It's hard to imagine that, in an election year, Congress is going to go on a law-passing spree.)
Don't like laws passed as a measure of productivity? How about bills passed -- although this stat can be slightly misleading since not all bills are created equal with some mattering far more than others. Still, the story remains the same -- as told by this chart from Rachel Maddow's blog:
The truth of the matter is that there really isn't a debate about the pure factual truth of President Obama's assertion on Wednesday night. But, whether a divided Congress should be productive -- as defined by passing bills or making laws -- is a whole different (and much more contentious) debate. In short: Is productivity a good thing?
When we wrote about congressional productivity last summer, Shawn Ryan, press secretary to Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, penned the counter-argument. He wrote, in part:
"Productive” is a relative term. A small government conservative or a libertarian might argue that the Congress that legislates least, governs best. In other words, just because we aren’t passing legislation doesn’t mean we aren’t being productive.
For example, the Administration has had [to] go around Congress in an attempt to put its environmental agenda in place (admittedly, that is something it probably would have had to do even with Democratic majorities in both chambers, but they have more political cover going around a Republican controlled House). That puts those policies on much rockier legal standing, assuming they can be implemented solely through the regulatory side at all. That’s a good thing if you disagree with those environmental policies and that outcome is the direct result of Congressional inaction.
By the end of 2013, House Speaker John Boehner was facing questions about the lack of productivity -- and making clear he vehemently disagreed with the idea of a do-nothing House. "The House has continued to listen to the American people and to focus on their concerns," Boehner said last December, adding: "The House continues to do its job. It's time for the Senate to get serious about doing theirs."
Whether you think Congress' main job should be passing bills/laws or not is, like most things in our world these days, largely dependent on which party you identify with. Democrats see Republicans' focus on things like repealing/changing Obamacare and Benghazi as cul-de-sac issues aimed at appealing to their base. Republicans view the idea of passing proposals championed by a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Senate solely to be considered "productive" ludicrous.
No mater which way you see it, it's clear that the 113th Congress will be the least productive in history. President Obama's right about that.