In 2011, fewer bills, fewer laws and plenty of blame

Reporter December 5, 2011

Congress is close to wrapping up one of its least productive sessions in recent memory, as the House and Senate have passed a scant number of bills compared with other non-election years, and President Obama has signed the fewest measures into law in at least two decades.

Congressional popularity is at an all-time low and at least one presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), is trying to win votes by calling for a part-time legislature. Some Americans may think Congress is doing too much, others say it’s not enough.

Regardless of whether you want more or less from Capitol Hill, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.

Through Nov. 30, the House had passed 326 bills, the fewest in at least 10 non-election years, according to annual tallies in the Congressional Record. The Senate had approved 368 measures, the fewest since 1995.

By comparison, the House approved 970 bills in 2009 and 1,127 in 2007. The Senate totals for those years were 478 and 621, respectively. (Both chambers are expected to pass more bills before adjourning this month, but probably not enough to change the overall picture.)

And the White House need not fear an ink shortage — Obama had signed only 62 bills into law through November. The last time there was a new Republican majority in the House and a Democrat in the White House, 1995, President Bill Clinton signed 88 measures.

Before this year began, House Republican leaders deliberately decided to pare back the chamber’s agenda.

“The goal for this Congress is to stress quality over quantity in terms of the flow of legislation on the House floor,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote to his colleagues. “I intend to lengthen the time for consideration of bills in order to improve quality and deliver results. Gone are congratulatory resolutions. Post office namings will be handled on a less frequent basis.”

Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon said Republicans had followed through on that pledge.

“We have eliminated commemorative legislation and have increased the percentage of bills brought to the floor under rules rather than suspension to allow for more transparency and deliberation in the legislative process,” Fallon said. “In the view of House Republicans, good governance is not measured by the tally of bills passed or the expansion of the federal government, but by the quality of the legislation and its impact on reducing the size, scope and overreach of government.”

The fact that the House is no longer passing measures applauding college volleyball champions helps explain some of the decline in bills passed, but even subtracting such resolutions from the total, other recent Congresses still approved more measures than this one has.

Of course, the House may have less incentive to pass additional bills, since so many measures passed by the chamber have piled up on the Senate’s doorstep without a vote. House Republicans have approved more than 20 pieces of legislation that they say would boost job creation but have not been considered by that chamber.

Democrats dispute the notion that many of the GOP’s favored bills would help the economy. And the Senate’s drop in bills passed, depending on whom you ask, either reflects the obstructionism of the Republican minority or the unwillingness of the Democratic majority to negotiate on key bills.

James Thurber, the director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, called the overall numbers “Exhibit A in showing how dysfunctional the Congress has become.”

In particular, Thurber noted that Congress has spent significant time and political effort this year squabbling over a series of short-term spending bills and raising the debt ceiling.

“The failure of the appropriations process has limited their ability to do other things,” Thurber said.

The House has passed only six of 11 regular appropriations bills for fiscal 2012, well behind the usual pace in that chamber. The Senate has moved just two annual stand-alone spending bills, though a few more moved in a “minibus” last month.

As for bills becoming law, split control of Congress has obviously played a role in the relatively low number; the House and Senate have had difficulty agreeing on anything this year.

The last comparable dynamic came in 2001, when Republicans controlled the White House and the House and Democrats held the Senate after May, when Sen. James Jeffords (Vt.) left the GOP. President George W. Bush signed 136 bills into law that year.

The 2011 tally could go up before Congress quits this month, as the House is scheduled this week to vote on several non-controversial measures beginning Tuesday afternoon (House votes were put off Monday evening so members could attend the White House holiday ball).

But the most consequential bill on the House calendar this week, a sweeping regulatory reform bill, is likely dead on arrival in the Senate.

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