Congress is Legislating Less

By No Labels
March 8, 2018 | Blog

Ten years ago, the number of bills that made it to the floor of the House or Senate for consideration was almost 3,000 in a two-year Congressional session. In the current Congress, that number is 1,136 for the 14 months that ended in February.

Congressional productivity has slowed in terms of the number of bills that are passed, the number sent to the president and the number that become law, according to data from Congress.gov.

Congress is much less effective that it has been in decades past. Since the start of this Congress, lawmakers have struggled to pass a budget and failed to take action on immigration, border security or gun safety, all pressing needs that enjoy broad public support. At No Labels, we believe there is a strong case to change the way Congress operates by changing the rules that govern it.

The numbers on legislation

Of course, the number of bills considered or passed is just one indicator of productivity, and not a particularly good one. Counting bills is flawed because not all bills are created equal. A single piece of legislation like the Affordable Care Act or this year’s tax bill can make more substantial change than hundreds of other bills.

Having said that, creating federal law is the sole prerogative of Congress, and there’s no doubt lawmakers are doing less of it. The number of bills that passed both chambers in the 110th Congress (2007-2008) was 568, while in the current 115th Congress through February is 164, or less than a third as many. The number of bills sent to the president was 467 versus 133. The number of bills that became law was 460 versus 130.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that more is better. But it is also hard to argue that Congress is improving. Both chambers have become more partisan and unable or unwilling to negotiate even on basic matters. The government shut down twice this year before we reached the end of the first quarter.

New House, new rules

However, productivity in Congress could literally change overnight, if lawmakers were willing to change the rules they follow, particularly in the House. Rules changes, which lawmakers can vote in themselves, could encourage bipartisan cooperation and make Congress more productive.

For example, the current system relies on votes from just one party to elect the Speaker. It requires a simple majority of the house (218 of 435), and the majority party generally wins in that scenario. They vote in a Speaker who pushes only their agenda, and the opposition is all but locked out of the process. There’s no incentive for bipartisan cooperation.

But what if it required a 60-percent margin to elect the speaker (261 of 435). That would almost always require a candidate to reach across the aisle for support, and that Speaker would then be bound to set the legislative agenda to serve both parties.

A recent poll shows that this idea has broad support. Whatever the outcome of November’s election, we’ll have new lawmakers and a fresh slate. In effect, it will be a new House. It’s time for lawmakers to consider new rules, too.


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