Your Do-Nothing Congress (in One Graph)

Following on Andrew’s post, here’s a graph from political scientist Tobin Grant:

The current Congress and the next least productive Congresses are highlighted.

12 Responses to Your Do-Nothing Congress (in One Graph)

  1. Bastanteroma September 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Anyone care to share why all the earliest Congresses aren’t counted as unproductive?

  2. Andrew Gelman September 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    I am sooooo happpy you labeled the time axis by year rather than congress number. Thank you thank you thank you.

  3. ThePoliticalOmnivore September 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    I’m very hesitant to say that the level of partisanship is new or more extreme today than in eras past (for example, I am familiar with some of the rhetoric that was thrown around in colonial times–far exceeding what the candidates call each other today).

    However, in the same way that electronic funds transfer increased the “velocity of money” and therefore the “effective amount of money” I suspect that the age of the Internet may be increasing the degree to which high-but-not-insane levels of partisanship appear. I suspect individually targeted social media is amplifying our disagreements in ways that simply, previously, didn’t exist. I can’t do the graphs here but if you look at the user base of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube from election day 2008 to today it’s a massive incline.

    What does this mean? It means that the battleground of governance–Congress–is possibly more susceptible to partisan ideology than those other low lines were. News gets fed to the electorate faster and in a far more processed manner than ever before (look how long it takes the spin/counter-spin around a gaffe to solidify–and how fast each side marches to its talking points).

    So this may be why the forces–currently balanced–are locked in stasis: because while Americans may not *hate* each other now more than ever, whatever divisions they do feel (class warfare, traded allegations of racism, animosity towards what a “liberal” or a “conservative” really is “at heart”) get traction that simply didn’t exist even four years ago.

    Maybe things really are different now.

  4. Tobin Grant September 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Nate Kelly and I are working on a project modeling productivity (see our Political Analysis piece for another measure of productivity). Short answer is a combination of institutionalization, a much smaller republic, and the use of quill pens & moveable type.

  5. Andrew September 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    Interesting graph. Does “public acts” include not-so-significant pieces of legislation? I imagine, for example, there were a lot more post offices to name in the 1950s when Congress appears hyperactive on the graph. Also, I wonder about the size of legislation in the 1950s/60s. Would previous Congress’ had the monstrous bills we see today like Dodd-Frank or the Affordable Care Act? If I remember right, the Civil Rights Act was less than 20 pages.

  6. anonymous September 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Surely with all this site’s criticism or journalists for making sloppy inferences based on data interpreted out of context, this post could provide a bit more context. Maybe with a denominator? Wouldn’t passage rates be more comparable over time than number of bills enacted? (Using rates of passage isn’t really going to tell a different story about the 112th — in fact, it might very well strengthen your point — but it will affect how other years look in relation to one another.) And maybe even just a little caveat that number of bills enacted is a poor measure of productivity and policy significance?! (For instance, PL 112-141 includes a massive transportation reauthorization, a significant flood insurance program, and extension of student loan rates — but it’s only counting as one enactment, isn’t it? So post office naming bills aren’t the only noise in the measure.)

  7. Tobin Grant September 20, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    — Public Acts are everything that people normally think of as laws. They include dinky bills like holidays and naming post offices, but excludes private legislation (laws directed at remedying individual problems). Private acts used to be done a lot–an FBI bribery sting reduced them.
    I agree that “productivity” often implies the inverse of “gridlock” — it’s how efficient a congress is. Nate Kelly and I now use the term “legislative product”. It’s how much Congress produces, not how productive it is. Laws is just one way to measure legislative product.
    For lots more on measuring legislative productivity of congresses, see
    For measuring importance of individual legislation see

  8. Aaron September 20, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    Since some here appear confused by the term Public Acts, it means laws on the books that have been passed by Congress, signed into law the the President, or passed by Congress over a presidential veto/inaction.

  9. Lorenzo from Oz September 21, 2012 at 5:33 am #

    Why is passing laws equated with productivity? Do we really think laws always make things better? The surge in legislating in the 1920s did not exactly presage a successful era while there is a very respectable argument that FDR’s NIRA stopped a very promising economic recovery in its tracks. (I find the common assumption that FDR successfully managed the exit from the Depression very dubious — the US actually did significantly worse than comparable countries.)

    Assuming that there has been no major change in what constitutes a public act, there is a clear downward trend since the 1950s, so something long-term is going on.

    On the matter of partisanship, a country whose record of partisanship includes a Civil War perhaps should not get too worked up about current partisanship merely because it is current.

    • matt w September 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      Lorenzo, the argument about the NIRA seems odd — it was passed in 1933, and the US’s GDP graph looks like this — a huge climb until the premature turn toward austerity in 1937. The NIRA wasn’t a good idea, but it didn’t stop any recovery in its tracks. See Eric Rauchway for more.

      Anyway, as the previous post observes, whether or not you think passing laws is a good idea it seems as though the current congress hasn’t done much of it.