A 'do-nothing Congress'?

Greg Nash

Capitol Hill’s reputation as the “do-nothing Congress” is well-deserved. 

The current session of Congress is on track to pass historically fewer laws of substance, according to an analysis by The Hill.

In fact, the major bills that have cleared the 113th Congress to date are nearly all "must-pass" measures or reauthorizations of existing law. [READ LAWS PASSED BY THE 113TH CONGRESS.]

Laws of substance under The Hill's analysis are defined as bills that are non-ceremonial and have some tangible impact on policy, even if it is as minor as a land transfer. Ceremonial measures passed by this Congress include naming post offices, awarding Congressional Gold Medals and naming a section of the tax code after former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Out of the 126 laws passed by the 113th Congress so far, only 99 are considered substantive and not related to ceremonial recognitions.

By contrast, 144 laws had been enacted at this same point in the last Congress, and 105 of those were non-ceremonial. 

As those numbers have dwindled, so has Congress’s approval rating. 

Still, members are acutely aware of how they're perceived. A recent Gallup poll found just seven percent had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress -- the lowest score it had ever recorded for any institution.

"It's an embarrassment," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who has served since 2005.

Cleaver recounted a scene he recently witnessed at an airport where he watched a Democratic member of Congress tell a stranger that he merely did "work for the government." He declined to name the lawmaker.

The Missouri Democrat described frustration with the House churning through bills that quickly stall in the Senate.

"A lot of the things that pass we know will not go anywhere. Everybody knows it," Cleaver said.

Congressional experts and some members caution, however, that quantity doesn’t always equal quality when it comes to legislation. 

"Just because a Congress does more or less doesn't mean that it's addressing the big issues of the day," said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution.

For example, she noted that Congress has increasingly turned to passing one all-encompassing spending bill, known as an omnibus, over approving all 12 annual appropriations measures. An omnibus only amounts to one law, but it encompasses what could have been 12 separate laws and drives down the numbers. 

Even if the House and Senate have difficulty agreeing on legislation, that doesn't stop each from passing a multitude of their own initiatives. But without approval from both chamber, and ultimately the president’s signature, the measures will never become law. 

"I think our last estimate was that we had well over 200 bills that were stacked up over in the Senate. So if the Senate actually acted on our legislation, we would be very productive," said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). 

With the rise of the Tea Party, many Republicans don’t view think fewer laws enacted is a loss, but instead wear the decrease as a badge of honor in their quest to limit government.  

As House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, "We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal."

The major legislation passed by this Congress and enacted into law is remarkable for its focus on renewals of existing statute. Those bills include reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, the defense authorization, five-year farm bill, water resources and development and appropriations.

Then there are the measures to avert events deemed emergencies, such as the Hurricane Sandy supplemental appropriations measure or ending Federal Aviation Administration furloughs caused by sequestration that resulted in flight delays.

Still, such accomplishments fall short of President Obama's ambitious proposals after winning reelection in 2012, such as immigration reform of gun control.

In fact, Congress has agreed on just one gun-related bill: an extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act for ten years to prohibit the manufacture of guns immune to metal detectors.

"I sort of think of this as lowest common denominator lawmaking," Binder said.

But there may be at least one major piece of legislation heading to President Obama's desk this year that does not constitute an extension of existing law: the Veterans Affairs reform bill. 

The measure, which is still being finalized by House and Senate negotiators, would allow veterans to seek care outside the VA if wait times are too long or if the nearest VA facility is more than 40 miles away following the controversy that enveloped agency hospitals earlier this year. 

Tomas Navia contributed.

 

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