With the annual August recess rapidly approaching for members of Congress — the House will be in session only 13 more days before its members take off for the month — pressure is on for President Trump’s party to show that it has achieved some significant policy goals.
Trump has repeatedly said that his stewardship has led to uncommon success, arguing last month that he’d accomplished more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt — a claim that hinges on including his many executive orders, though they didn’t always do very much. But it’s true that Congress has put more legislation on his desk so far in 2017 than it has in the first years of other recent presidents.
The question, though, is how significant that legislation actually is. How does the pre-recess work of the 115th Congress compare with other recent efforts?
One rough metric we can use to assess that is the page-count of each bill signed into law. It takes a lot less language to, say, name a courthouse after former senator (and “Law and Order” actor) Fred Thompson than it does to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Using the tools at GovTrack.us, we tallied the total number of pages passed by each Congress through the end of July of the first year it was in session. Since 1993 (the 103rd Congress), the current Congress has passed more pages of legislation than any of the others, save that of 2009-2010 — the first year under President Barack Obama.
Notice, though, that there’s a big jump in the number of pages signed into law under the current Congress about halfway through that period. That was thanks to the signing of a 708-page appropriations bill in early May. It alone makes up 80 percent of the pages of legislation signed into law under this Congress. Remove it, and the number of pages of legislation passed is much more modest.
Why does that 2009-2010 Congress stand out? This was the push to address the financial crisis that struck during the 2008 election. The laws enacted early in Obama’s first term were complex, aimed at limiting fallout from the recession.
On average, the bills passed since 1993 have been about 5.9 pages long. If we consider the number of bills that are above average — six pages or longer — the current 115th Congress is among the four Congresses that have passed the fewest bills of that length. (It’s tied with two Congresses, the 105th and 106th, and tops only the 107th, the first Congress under George W. Bush.)
Where the current Congress excels is in passing one-page bills. Only one other Congress, the 110th, had enacted more one-page bills by this point in its first year.
Predictably, a higher percentage of all of the bills passed by this Congress constituted only one page. About 3 of every 5 bills enacted in the 115th Congress were one page long.
But there’s at least one reason for that. A number of the measures signed into law by Trump were Congressional Review Act bills, measures passed early in his term that simply undid policies put into place under Obama. Those bills don’t demand a lot of complexity.
Here, for example, is the entire body of S. 496, repealing an FTA regulation enacted in December.
Since the CRA was signed into law in 1996, no president has used it as much as Trump.
What’s missing from the list of accomplishments of this Congress, simply put, is one major bill that both congressional Republicans and Trump can point to as a clear demonstration of their ability to craft sweeping reform given GOP control of Congress and the White House.
At this point, it seems that any bill meeting that requirement is unlikely before the recess, regardless of length.