Legislative Politics

The Do-(Less than)-Nothing Congress

Sep 20 '12

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.)