The Do-(Less than)-Nothing Congress

The 112th Congress has not yet ceased to be, but as of today the Library of Congress’s “Thomas” site shows that 173 bills have become public law since January 2011. Legislators should add at least one more this week, albeit with the continuing resolution punting the fiscal 2013 budget sometime into calendar year 2013 (thus passing on any given session’s most important obligation.) The lame duck session after the election will add to the total as well. Even so, as Jennifer Steinhauer pointed out yesterday, the present Congress has done far less than the so-called “Do Nothing” 80th Congress of 1947-48, which produced 906 laws.

The average number of enactments in a given Congress from 1947 through 2010 (via quick calculations from the Resume of Congressional Activity) is 637.  And if the do-nothing Congress actually did quite a lot, the 112th Congress will fall well short even of the current record holder for fewest enactments in the postwar period, the 104th Congress of 1995-96. That Congress produced 333 laws.

For many, of course, the less Congress does, the better. And we should be cautious of equating activity with productivity generally. Still, if anything, the 112th Congress’s figure is too high. After all, more than 20%—thirty-seven(! )—of the laws passed thus far in 2011-12 are acts re-naming post offices, courthouses, plazas, and wilderness areas. (A 38th tells the Treasury to mint commemorative coins to help fund the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Motherhood and apple pie coins did not survive Senate filibuster.)


7 Responses to The Do-(Less than)-Nothing Congress

  1. Bill September 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    With things in the country going so incredibly well, there really isn’t much need for Congress to make new laws.

  2. RobC September 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    At least the 112th Congress passed more laws than the do-nothing 1st Congress, which had to content itself with establishing a whole new system of government and body of laws. Unless there’s a new problem or a manifestly better solution to an old problem than is reflected in existing legislation, Congress should sit down and shut up. If they need something to do, they can reread Thoreau’s advice in Civil Disobedienceabout the government that governs best.

  3. Ted Brader September 20, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Thanks, Andy. That’s the first time anyone has given me reason to like the current Congress!

  4. Brett Gall September 20, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    Could this also be affected substantially by changes in the power and scope of regulatory agencies and executive orders?

    • Andrew Rudalevige September 21, 2012 at 11:06 am #

      A good question, and one the present literature is ambivalent about. I do think that Congressional gridlock empowers both president and judiciary (there was a recent NYT piece observing the latter effect.) Rulemaking may also serve as a substitute for legislation (though not one we would always expect Congress to be happy about.) Executive orders however frequently follow from new legislation, so tend to track upwards along with legislative output. That said we’d have to dig deeper into the substance of EOs to really answer the question.

  5. Creighton Welch September 21, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    Naming post offices and courthouses is nothing new. I’d bet the 111th Congress passed well over 100 of these laws.

  6. Andrew Rudalevige September 21, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    @Ted, I suspect you recall the old aphorism that “no one’s life, liberty, or property are safe while Congress is in session…”

    @Creighton, I haven’t done the count, but you are of course right that these bills become law in every session – they are perfect constituent credit-claiming opportunities (every re-naming needs a re-ribbon cutting). I do think their share of the total output in the current Congress is worth noting.