A Measure of Congressional (un)Productivity (Robert Coon On Politics)

by Robert Coon  on Wednesday, Jul. 9, 2014 10:34 am  

Robert Coon

In case you haven’t noticed, not much is getting done in Washington these days. Since convening in early 2013, the 113th Congress has enacted a paltry 125 laws. According to USA Today, the current Congress "is on track to break the previous record low of 283, set in 2011-12 by the 112th Congress."

Keep in mind that included in the 125 laws to date that have been passed and signed by the President are some real pressing policy issues like Public Law No: 113-10 which was passed "to specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins" and Public Law No: 113-22 "to rename section 219(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 as the Kay Bailey Hutchison Spousal IRA." [1]  

Color me unimpressed. Fortunately, I’m not alone.

Confidence in Congress
In late June, Gallup released results from its latest public opinion poll that tested American confidence in government and public institutions. Given the increasingly hyper-partisan and divisive political environment in our country, the results of the poll - which showed that American confidence in the three branches of U.S. government have reached "record lows for the Supreme Court (30 percent) and Congress (7 percent), and a six-year low for the presidency (29 percent)" - are not overly surprising. As you might expect, confidence in Congress consistently comes in lower than the other two branches, while the Supreme Court and the presidency have "alternated being the most trusted branch of government since 1991 - the first year Gallup began asking regularly about all three branches."

For comparative purposes, the public’s current view of Congress is not only the lowest it has ever been, but it's also the lowest level of confidence for any institution over the last 41 years – lower than public schools, banks, the health care system, the criminal justice system, organized labor, big business, news on the Internet and television news.  

In 1973, when Gallup first started asking Americans if they had "'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of confidence in Congress as an American institution," 42 percent of Americans said they did. Since that time, the public’s confidence in Congress has fallen dramatically.

Is there any wonder why?

Political Positioning vs. Solutions
Lack of cooperation between the House of Representatives and the Senate, and between Congress and the President, has led to legislative gridlock on a host of major public policy issues. Individually, both houses of Congress have passed legislation meant to address important issues, yet they’ve done so in many cases with no regard as to how those bills will be received in the other chamber, and with no intentions of finding consensus. The problem is that that in many cases, Congressional action is more about positioning for the next election cycle than it is about finding a workable solution. 

The House - which maintains a comfortable Republican majority - has passed bills that balance the budget, rein in out-of-control federal spending [2], provide regulatory relief from agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and myriad other bills that are still waiting on Senate action [3], even a few sponsored by House Democrats.  Likewise, the Democratically controlled Senate – where the legislative process seems to work in slow motion – has sent a handful of measures (including a few with bi-partisan support) to its colleagues in the House, like comprehensive immigration reform and a bill to restore federal funding for extended unemployment benefits – only to have them dismissed and ignored upon arrival.

Of course many might argue that the fewer laws passed by Congress, the better. On some issues that's probably true. House Republicans have certainly jumped on that bandwagon, attempting to convince the public that gridlock means putting a halt to the Obama agenda. Similarly, Senate Democrats – while placing all the blame on the House for causing the gridlock – have argued that they're doing the public a service by putting the brakes on the "extreme" House.    

Regardless, what both sides seem to be ignoring in their effort to blame the other guy is that there are major policy issues – such as reforming our unfair and out-of-date tax code, infrastructure improvements and fixing our broken immigration system - that simply can’t be solved through inaction.

Evaluating Congress' productivity solely on the number of laws passed is of course only one metric.   Leaders of both houses of Congress would instead prefer to be judged based on bills passed by their respective chambers, and by the "punitive" policies they've successfully grinded to a halt. But how does the American public measure success? Do they give credit for work that's only halfway done or are they looking for actual legislative accomplishments that solve real problems? 

Judging by the record low level of confidence (7 percent) that the public has in the institution, I think the answer is obvious.

[1] Given the level of dysfunction in Washington, it’s a wonder that Congress could find the level of cooperation needed to pass laws as innocuous as these. 

[3] Hope no one is holding their breath…
(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)



Please read our comments policy before commenting.