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'Do-nothing' Congress on track for one of the least productive years ever

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner are seen in this Nov. 20, 2013 photo.

It's not quite a "do nothing" Congress – but it's not far off. 

With only a handful of remaining legislative days on their calendar, this current Congress is on track to go down as one of the most unproductive in modern history. 

The paltry number of bills Congress has passed into law this year paints a vivid picture of just how bad the gridlock has been for lawmakers, whose single-digit approval rating illustrates that the public is hardly satisfied with their trickle of legislative activity.

According to THOMAS, the legislative tracking service, this Congress has passed just 52 public laws since it gaveled into session in January.

If that sounds like a small number, it is.

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At this point in George W. Bush’s second term as president, for example, 113 bills had been enacted into law, according to numbers crunched by Pew Research Center’s Drew DeSilver. In the same amount of time during the 110th Congress – from January until before the Thanksgiving recess of 2007 – that number was 120.  

The numbers are a little bit different – but no less grim – after you break out bills that are merely ceremonial.

Of course, some of the legislation that has reached the president’s desk this year has involved some hard-fought and highly publicized issues like reverse mortgage rules, high interest rates for students and reopening the government after the lengthy shutdown.

Even the Helium Stewardship Act – despite the fun it provided for headline writers making “deflated hopes” jokes – addressed a worldwide shortage that was hitting America’s high-tech industries hard.

But the list of Washington’s accomplishments gets plenty of padding every year from bridge namings, post office honors and various awards.

So far this year, the president has signed legislation to specify the size of commemorative coins for the Baseball Hall of Fame, to name a subsection of IRS code after former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and to honor baseball great Stan Musial with a namesake Midwestern bridge.

With the ceremonial measures excluded, according to DeSilver’s calculations, Congress has enacted just 44 “substantive” laws so far this year.

That’s well below the average of about 70 substantive bills passed in the equivalent time period between 1999 and 2012.

"The major urgent areas of concern in the country just have not been addressed," says Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's pretty pathetic."

A major reason for the lack of legislating, of course, rests in the divided government re-elected in 2012. That left Democrats in control of the Senate and White House, with Republicans in charge of the House.  

Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institute, says that other factors are to blame as well, like policy disputes between members of the same party and the dwindling number of moderates willing to mediate tiffs between warring factions.

“Consensus is simply much harder to build if there’s nobody coming to the table,” she said.

The gridlock has meant that major issues – some with likely benefits for members of both parties – have been left on the table. 

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The Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation earlier this year but prospects for a vote in the House are slim. House Republicans have voted some 47 times to either repeal or somehow change the newly enacted health-care law, efforts that have been shelved in the upper chamber. 

That sets the backdrop for an election year in 2014. With all 435 House seats up for re-election and 33 Senate seats at stake next November, the balance of power in Congress is very much in play.  

Could there be another reason for the lack of substantive laws? Perhaps the seeming eagerness of lawmakers to hightail it out of Washington for recess?

So far, the Senate has been in session 144 days this Congress, while the House has been in for 147 legislative days. They’re still scheduled to vote on at least eight more days before the end of the year.

That’s actually a little bit better than the average over the last decade, according to records kept by the House Clerks’ office.

From 2001-2012, the Senate was in session an average of about 149 days, while the House was around for an average of 138.

The good news?

This Congress is at least on track to beat its predecessor, the 112th Congress, which has been derided as the least productive Congress since 1948, when scholars started keeping official tabs.

That group had passed just 41 substantive laws by this point in 2011.

But after the Senate’s unprecedented move last week to eliminate filibusters for most presidential nominees, both parties are heading into the holiday break with heightened animosity toward each other.

And that doesn’t bode well for a productive second half of the 113th session.


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