WASHINGTON — Even the infamous “Do Nothing Congress” of 1948 did more.
Washington lawmakers this year have approved just 55 laws and, with only a handful of days left, will almost certainly go down as the least productive crop of legislators in modern history.
The two chambers combined have spent about 36 hours per week in session, yet they have only passed one law on average each week — and many of those have been relatively inconsequential. Bridges have been named, veterans affairs hospitals dedicated, and old laws have been renewed. But little more.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Representative Rick Nolan, a Minnesota Democrat who served in Congress in the 1970s, left for 32 years, and returned this year.
“We’re just locked in a fight with failure. And so far, failure is winning,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat.
The numbers prove what Americans instinctively know: Washington’s current level of dysfunction is historic, the result of an endless standoff between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-dominated Senate — and a White House at a loss for how to end the impasse.
A look at the most significant legislative accomplishments of the year shows just how dire the situation in Washington has become. Matters that were routine in any other year are now the centerpieces: The Violence Against Women Act was renewed; legislation was passed to keep the government’s helium gas reserves open; and Congress came to an agreement to fund the government — more than two weeks after the October shutdown.
More ambitious proposals stalled out. An immigration overhaul passed the Senate, but has languished in the House. New regulations to tighten gun laws — the government’s chief response to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School — couldn’t get the votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, and were never even considered in the House.
Ceremonial action had continued, in many cases. A subsection of the tax code was named after former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican. A bridge across the Mississippi River was named after baseball legend Stan Musial. A veteran affairs medical center in Bay Pines, Fla., was named after former representative C.W. Bill Young, a Republican from Florida who died in October. An air traffic control center in Nashua was named after Patricia Clark, a longtime employee at the center.
The House is meeting this week and next week, and is planning to adjourn for the year on Dec. 13. The Senate is meeting next week and the week after, before ending its session on Dec. 20. That leaves just five days where the two chambers will overlap and have a chance to come to any additional legislative agreements.
Given that short time frame, it is unlikely they will be able to pass enough laws to exceed the previous annual lows. In 1995, only 88 laws were passed; in 2011, 90 were approved. In 1948, the same year President Harry Truman labeled it the “Do Nothing Congress,” 511 laws were passed (which actually was a relative high point in the last half-century) — eight times more than Congress is on pace to pass this year.
House and Senate lawmakers have been meeting to try to come to agreement on a farm bill, which in past years has been approved with little trouble. This year there have been deep divisions, particularly over cuts that House Republicans want to make to the food stamp program. If a deal is not reached, farm subsidies would be cut and milk prices would soar.
Lawmakers still are wrangling over the annual defense spending bill, which has passed for 52 consecutive years. Congress has yet to pass a so-called doc fix, raising reimbursement rates for medical providers who treat Medicare patients. Those rates would be cut sharply if nothing is done.
Budget negotiators have been working on a deal to fix spending levels and tax law changes by Dec. 13. Their work can spill into next year, however, because the next real budget deadline is Jan. 15, when another government shutdown will occur if no deal is reached first.
Congress is still in session as much — if not more — than it has been in previous years. But few of the days this year proved very meaningful.
When asked on Tuesday about the dismal track record, House Speaker John Boehner put the blame squarely on the Senate.
“We’ve done our work,” he said. “When you look at the number of bills passed by the House and the paltry number of bills passed by the Senate you can see where the problem is.”
The House had passed 308 measures by the end of October, compared with 289 passed by the Senate, according to the congressional record.
Republicans said they were only doing what their constituents wanted: for them to slow government down. Laws should not be measured by quantity, they argue.
“Just because you pass a whole bunch of bills doesn’t mean that that’s all good,” said Representative Bob Gibbs, a Republican from Ohio. “I came here in 2010. There were quite a few things passed before I got here that I think were a disaster. One of those is Obamacare.”
Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, said that not only should fewer laws be passed.
“One of the best things we could do is a major repeal,” she said. “There are so many bad laws that need to be repealed off the books.”
To be sure, members of Congress have other duties besides passing laws. They help constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy, assist with visas, passports, or getting tours of the Capitol. They hold hearings, act as a watchdog over the executive branch, and sometimes expose wrongdoing.
That counts to their credit, particularly since the cost-benefit as measured by lawmaking is weak.
Senators and members of the House earn combined annual paychecks of $75.7 million, meaning the public paid $1.4 million for each of the laws enacted. Broken down a different way, each member of Congress is paid about $174,000, so each earned $3,164 per law.
Congress is still in session as much — if not more — than it has been in previous years. The House has been in session for 149 days so far this year. But few of the days this year proved very meaningful. In some cases, votes were taken even though, as all lawmakers knew, the bills were destined for failure. More than 40 times, for instance, the House has voted to repeal President Obama’s health care law, a move that stands no chance in the Senate.
Agreement, when it has come, had been on a decidedly smaller scale. Legislators passed a law providing incentives to states that boost supplies of epinephrine at schools. They transferred land in Powell, Wyo., for a shooting range, and they passed a law allowing the US Mint to create a commemorative, curved-shape coin celebrating the 75th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
The 113th Congress still has one more year where members could make up for lost time — and Congresses tend to do more in their second years. But there are few signs of change in the current hyperpartisan climate.
Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California and one of the longest-serving members in the House, stood off from the House floor on Monday night and declared this Congress the worst he’s ever seen.
“This Congress,” he said, “has been a real waste of time.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.