Worst Congress Ever? Maybe Not!

by John Sides on September 27, 2012 · 1 comment

in Legislative Politics,Policy

Following on our posts, see this from political scientists Scott Alder and John Wilkerson.  They note that, once you take into account the importance of the bills passed (proxied here with their length), the 112th Congress doesn’t look all that bad:

 

Moreover, this Congress may conclude with a flurry of activity:

Compared to unified governments, divided governments tend to be less productive in their first sessions and accelerate their productivity in their second sessions. Furthermore, the productivity gap narrows most dramatically in the final three or four months of a congressional term.

Adler and Wilkerson’s new book is Congress and the Politics of Problem-Solving, which is summarized here and which you can buy here.  It amounts to a revisionist take on legislative politics right now.  To wit:

The resulting insights are innovative and substantial: incumbents of both parties have electoral incentives to be concerned about Congress’s collective performance; the legislative issue agenda can often be predicted years in advance; nearly all important successful legislation originates in committee; many laws pass with bipartisan support; and electoral replacement, partisan or otherwise, is not the most robust predictor of when policy changes are enacted.

Expect more from their blog in the coming weeks and months.

{ 1 comment }

JC September 27, 2012 at 1:13 pm

I’m not sure length is an adequate measure for importance. The length of a bill represents a number of strategic considerations, and the impact a bill has is not likely to be perfectly correlated with length. We know that bills, in general, are getting longer over time, but does that mean they are getting uniformly more important?

Better measures might include:
1. The proportion of the U.S. Code has been affected by statutes passed during each congress.
2. (For appropriations since they don’t involve the Code) The absolute change in dollar made to discretionary and mandatory spending programs (upward or downward).

I agree the 112th has been more productive than people give it credit for, but I disagree in how this is being presented. Besides, the passage of bills is not the only way to assess the “productivity” of Congress. A lot of the back-room fighting that has gone on over the last 2 years in Congress may lay the groundwork for future legislative accomplishments. Such later accomplishments will reflect work done during this congress.

Additionally, what about oversight? Maybe Congress has passed more bills but engaged in more oversight. Congress can also influence policy by getting executive agencies to change their regulatory codes. Productivity measures should consider these changes, as well.

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