You won't hear anyone on Capitol Hill bragging about it, but before Congress went home for the holidays, lawmakers set a record of sorts: They passed more laws that do less than any similar year since 1977.
Seventy percent of the 189 public laws passed by Congress in 1985 were not substantive, according to a list compiled by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.
The laws concerned such "weighty" nonsubstantive or administrative matters as "National Sewing Month" (September), reaffirming solidarity with Mexico, naming the courthouse in Ashland, Ky., for the late representative Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.) and deciding not to print the official documents recording the increase in the public debt on parchment paper.
By contrast, 17 percent of the laws passed by Congress in 1977 were nonsubstantive or administrative, 27 percent in 1979, 42 percent in 1981 and 53 percent in 1983, according to the policy committee list.
The Senate, once considered "the world's greatest deliberative body," recorded another dubious distinction this year. According to figures compiled by Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), the body spent 367 hours this year in quorum and roll calls. This amounts to three months of 40 hour weeks of nonwork.
"I think we're spending a lot of time basically doing nothing," Pryor said. "It's like sitting at an airport waiting for hours for a late plane.
"We're simply spending more and more time doing less and less," he added.
Statistics appear to substantiate this. The Senate was in session 1,243 hours in 1985, or 32 weeks of 40 hours each, according to the policy committee. This is 233 more hours in session than 1983 and 166 more hours than 1981.
The Senate spent 367 hours, 15 minutes in quorum calls, a device once meant to bring a majority to the floor for a vote but generally used by senators when they want to stall. And 140 hours, 12 minutes were spent in roll calls, with much of the time devoted to waiting for senators to arrive on the floor, consult with colleagues and then answer with a yes or no.
Put another way, the Senate spent about one hour in four marking time in 1985.
Pryor doesn't blame the Senate's Republican leadership. "It is no one's fault. It's the times. We accommodate one another too much and don't show any self-discipline. Everyone is partially to blame," Pryor said.
He and Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) head a group of dissatisfied senators who began meeting informally in October to discuss procedural problems. "Danforth calls it the Quality of Life Caucus. I call it the Frustration or Quality of Strife Caucus," Pryor said.
Senators, in an extraordinary private session Dec. 5, informally agreed to four procedural moves, including limiting each roll call to 15 minutes, designed to improve what Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) has called "the state of incipient anarchy" in the body.
More changes are expected next year. "Momentum is building for a significant reform movement," said political scientist Norman J. Ornstein, a specialist on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.
The number of laws passed each year has decreased dramatically over the last four decades, Ornstein said. "It has become harder to get substantive bills through Congress, but easier to get nonsubstantive ones."
To judge by the laws it passed, Congress operated best this year in playing with the calendar. It seemed to find a day, a week, a month or even a whole year for almost everyone.
It passed one law for "Made in America Month," another for "World Food Day," another for "National Employ the Older Worker Week," and still another for "Oil Heat Centennial Year."
Congress took care of the future with a "National High-Tech Month" and the past with a "Daughters of Veterans of the Civil War" day. There was a "Polish-American Heritage Month" law, a "Jewish Heritage Week" law and a "Baltic Freedom Day" law.
But Congress devoted more of the calendar to disease than anything else.
Lawmakers voted for "Lupus Awareness Week," "Benign Essential Blepharospasm Awareness Week," "National Diabetes Month," "National Digestive Diseases Awareness Week," "National Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Awareness Month," "Myasthenia Gravis Week," "National Down's Syndrome Month," "National Osteoporosis Awareness Week," "National Alopecia Areata Awareness Week," "National Reye's Syndrome Week," "National Alzheimer's Disease Month," "National Blood Pressure Awareness Week" and "National Spina Bifida Month."