Congress on pace to do less than last time’s record-breaking low
The current Congress, facing a backlog of unfinished business and sliding approval ratings, is on pace to clear fewer bills than its predecessor – which had the least number of measures signed into law since modern record keeping began in the 1940s.
Since the 113th Congress convened in January, the Senate has been in session 80 days and the House 84 days. Lawmakers passed 15 bills that were then signed by the president. That’s eight fewer than in the first six months of the last Congress and 19 fewer than in the same stretch of the 111th Congress.
“The 113th Congress is on track to be even less productive than the historic 112th Congress,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “The problem arises from a Republican House unwilling and unable to engage in the normal process of negotiation and compromise with the president, and their continued willingness to live with a destructive sequester.”
Left undone have been major pieces of legislation including a budget agreement and a farm and food-aid policy bill. Lawmakers missed a July 1 deadline to prevent subsidized Stafford student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent. While the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill and farm legislation, the House hasn’t charted a way forward on either issue.
Ronald Peters, a congressional historian at the University of Oklahoma, said output is closely linked to party ideology.
“It is Republicans who don’t like Washington and prefer to spend as much time as possible in the districts,” Peters said in an email. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, “has an additional problem – a fractured conference. So, if they cannot agree on what to do in D.C., they are better off staying home and cozying up to constituents.”
That performance isn’t sitting well with the public, who on average earn far less than lawmakers and can’t take as many breaks from the office. A June Gallup Poll found 78 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress does its job.
While most members of Congress earn $174,000 annually, the median household income in the U.S. was $50,054 in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
So far, the House and Senate have had eight complete weeks away from Washington, though the Congressional Record documents brief sessions – one lasted just three minutes – when legislative housekeeping was done in an all-but-empty chamber on a few of those days. Both chambers are scheduled to be gone for almost the whole month of August and the first week of September.
In a 2008 survey by Opinion Research Corp., 52 percent of respondents reported taking one week or less of paid vacation the previous year.
Lawmakers’ time away is hardly a vacation, according to staff members. Those weeks away from Washington, formally called “district work periods,” are designed to provide time for work-related travel or for office hours and town meetings back home.