Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) spent the Senate’s last day in session in 2013 in the hospital due to what doctors diagnosed as exhaustion.
Reid is a hard worker, but how ironic is it that he was fatigued by presiding over half of what has been the least productive year of Congress in history?
In the first of its two years the 113th Congress passed fewer than 60 bills, far less than the 395 passed by what President Harry Truman called the “Do Nothing Congress” of 1947.
It's less than the 90 bills passed in 2011, when a Republican takeover of the House left a divided Congress that set the previous mark for dysfunction.
It’s less than the 125 laws passed in 1995, the year after the Republican Revolution left Newt Gingrich’s House battling President Bill Clinton.
Americans have noticed. Job approval ratings for Congress in 2013 averaged 14%, the lowest annual average in Gallup’s history Congress started 2013 with a New Year's deal on the so-called fiscal cliff that raised taxes on higher incomes while extending lower rates for the rest of Americans. Excepting the modest budget deal at year’s end, it was downhill from there.
The chambers could not agree on a farm bill governing agriculture and a food stamp program that benefits millions. The House never came close to considering a comprehensive immigration bill the Senate passed.
Lawmakers left town this month without confirming Janet Yellen as chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, one of the country's most important jobs. They also didn’t extend federal unemployment benefits, which means more than 1 million jobless people are losing assistance.
“Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach, and this kind of mindless, knee-jerk obstruction from Republicans is exactly why,” Reid said.
Lawmakers’ lack of production was highlighted by their schedules. Earlier this month, The New York Times calculated that the House had been in session a total of 942 hours in 2013 (not counting brief pro-forma sessions) — “the fewest hours in a non-election year since 2005, when detailed information about legislative activity became available.” By contrast, according to the Times, the House was in session 1,200 hours in 2011, 1,350 hours in 2005 and nearly 1,700 hours in 2007.
However, the National Journal argued that much of the work of members of Congress takes place off the floor.
Of course, there are other ways to measure Congress’ job performance. House Speaker John Boehner has said that Congress “should not be judged on how many new laws we create, we ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal,” though it bears noting that that would require passing a repeal measure, which itself would count as substantive legislation by our definition. At any rate, the current Congress hasn’t repealed any laws either (despite 47 votes to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act).