The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 113th Congress is historically good at not passing bills

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With its August recess imminent and midterm elections following soon after, it's regularly assumed that Congress is done for the year. And, therefore, the 113th Congress, barring a legislative miracle, will soon officially be the least productive ever.

Depending on what you mean by "productive," that is. And if history is a guide, we're only about halfway through the legislation the 113th Congress will produce.

The Post spoke by phone with Josh Tauberer, a transparency advocate and "civic hacker" who created GovTrack, a site that aggregates data on Congress and its legislation. Tauberer didn't think there was much of a way that the 113th Congress could avoid seeing the lowest number of enacted laws in recent memory.

This is why. Using GovTrack's data, here's where the 113th (current) Congress stands in relation to every other Congress since 1973.

Notice that we've broken out the totals into two parts: the number of bills passed in each Congress as of Tuesday (which Tauberer compiled) and the legislation passed during the rest of the session. Somewhat surprisingly, only half of the laws enacted during a Congress are enacted during the first three-quarters of the session. Or, more specifically, since 1973, 50.12 percent of enacted laws have come from July 8 of the second year or later.

If you apply that average to the existing number of enacted laws from the 113th Congress, they're on track to enact 251 laws in total — more than 10 percent fewer bills than the last Congress — which earned the distinction of enacting the least amount of legislation since 1973. For this Congress to not be the one to enact the fewest laws, it would need to pass 56 percent of its total legislation between now and the end of the year. Only once has that level been hit — in the Congress right before the 1994 Republican avalanche. (For what it's worth, congresses that end in midterms are no more or less productive than those that end in presidential elections.)

As Tauberer notes, it takes a law to repeal a law, so even anti-government types might be frustrated by this lack of productivity. But by another measure, the 113th isn't doing as badly: the number of pages of legislation passed. "Congress is passing fewer bills, but they tend to be longer," Tauberer noted. "That might mean that Congress is passing only a few of the must-pass appropriations bills, and it might mean that those appropriations bills are getting longer over time."

He went back and looked at the length of bills that included the word "appropriations" in their titles — that is, bills related to spending. He cautions that this is a somewhat iffy metric, but, regardless, the number of words in such bills has increased.

Given that the 113th Congress has enacted more pages of legislation than the 112th (1.9 million to 1.7 million) Tauberer is "a little bit more hesitant" to call this the least productive Congress since he began tracking data. But then, productivity is in the eye of the beholder.

Congress will do more this year. Whether or not it will have done less by December than any Congress in the past 40 years is up to voters to decide.