The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judging the (un)productivity of the 113th Congress

This item has been updated and corrected.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) adjourned the Senate on Thursday evening by thanking colleagues for a productive work period.

“None of us got what we wanted, but we all got something,” Reid said.

Fact check, perhaps?

The last session of Congress, the 112th, was the most unproductive ever (or at least since 1948, when we started measuring these things). Six months in, the 113th looks like it could be even worse (or better, depending on how you view what Washington should — or shouldn't — be doing.)

Twenty-two bills have been passed by Congress and sent to President Obama for his signature since Congress convened in January. That's a little less than the 28 passed by August in the previous Congress, and a pretty poor output compared to earlier sessions.

The 104th Congress (in 1994) had also passed 28 bills by this point in the session; Republicans had taken control of the House that January and were butting heads with President Clinton.

Size isn't everything. Of the 36 laws enacted in the early days of the 107th Congress, one was the tax cut package backed by George W. Bush — an enormously consequential piece of legislation. But here the113th also falls short; nothing with anywhere near that impact has come out of Congress this year.

While only a couple dozen bills have passed, that doesn't mean both chambers aren't working. Let's break it down.

The Senate had a notable summer, passing a bipartisan immigration reform measure in late June and last week approving a bipartisan agreement to restructure the government’s education loan program. They've passed roughly 63 bills since the new congressional session began in January, according to records provided by Senate Democratic aides, beginning in January with approval of a flood insurance measure and federal disaster aid for areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

More than 110 nominees have also been confirmed by the Senate. But almost 200 other people are awaiting confirmation, according to Senate records.

Across the Capitol, aides to House Republican leaders declined to provide figures on the number of bills passed since January. (A Library of Congress search indicates that roughly 210 bills have come through the House).

Instead, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) defended his chamber’s performance in a statement, noting that “the American people elected a Democratic President and a divided Congress, so a big part of our job is stopping things that would hurt our economy and the American people, like the President’s national energy tax. Just as important, we’re grappling with the big issues. We’ve passed a balanced budget, cut trillions in spending that we can’t afford, offered the American people unparalleled transparency, and banned earmarks. Do I want to do more?  Hell, yes. But it’s a record I’m proud of.”

Other Republican aides suggested that evaluating Congress based solely on its output is a fool’s errand, because the current political divide hasn't existed since the 65th Congress, which ran through 1917 and 1918. That’s the last stretch of time when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate and White House. (Woodrow Wilson was serving as president.)

In most of the intervening years between Wilson and Obama, those GOP aides note, Democrats controlled the House and Senate and were ideologically inclined to pass legislation establishing new government programs and policies and drive up government spending.

“That’s easy to do. That’s not, and has never been, our goal,” said one senior House GOP aide granted anonymity to speak frankly. “We actually want to cut spending and reduce government.  That’s harder, and much, much harder when you only control the House.”

Whatever the cause, the August recess no longer seems to produce the flurry of bill-making it once did.

"In general, deal-making takes time, and most agreements these days tend to require action-forcing deadlines," said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. "In the past, August recess might have been such a deadline, but realistically Congress today seems incapable of making a commitment unless the consequences of inaction are dire."

So we'll see some action from this Congress in the fall, when the choice is between doing something and letting the government shut down.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that the last time the Senate passed an actual bill was in May, and had outdated information regarding Senate confirmation votes (because the Senate approved dozens more nominees late Thursday with a unanimous consent agreement). The last time the Senate passed a bill was in late July.