Capitolworks: Just the Facts...Tis the season to reflect on what has kept Congress busy this year
Updated: Jan 22
As we begin our march towards the end of the year, we thought it would be an excellent time to assess the first year of the 116th Congress and what they have been able to accomplish. Of course, we took into consideration the congressional activities that have captured the public's attention, whether it is the currently unfolding impeachment process, international and diplomatic concerns or our on-going budget woes. However, our analysis was not intended to identify what has already been made public. On the contrary, we aimed to recognize those congressional accomplishments that failed to make headlines. Unfortunately, our research confirmed the hypothesis that we had been considering. While it has been a busy year for Congress, the flurry of activity has not been the result of this branch's fundamental job-- legislating. In fact, this lack of legislative action has coined a new phrase- "a legislative desert." Let's try to better understand why this is the case and why it is essential to all of us that Congress get back to legislating.
Let's begin with some basic numbers. Thus far, Congress has passed just 77 bills-- a striking contrast to the previous Congress which by the same time, had passed 443 laws. Additionally, this Congress has had only 1% of these 77 bills become law. There are several factors that can help explain why Congress is unable to carry out its essential role, so let's take a brief look at each of them together.
As noted above, one apparent reason for these low numbers is the fact that Congress has been consumed with other pressing issues – whether they be impeachment proceedings or the constant threat of a government shutdown in the absence of a federal budget. However, while these two specific examples have played out dramatically before our eyes, many other factors belie these relatively easy explanations.
For example, recent research conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that ideological differences within Congress have never been as polarizing. The Center found that "voting in Congress is now almost purely one-dimensional – [political ideology] accounts for about 93 percent of roll-call voting choices." While we have witnessed this growing divide and the development of various political factions such as the Tea Party, among others, this fracturing within congressional membership has created a more acrimonious climate than ever before. This factor alone possesses such a significant threat to the ability to develop any kind of consensus that some worry that the legislative process as we have known it has come to an end.
Additional factors contributing to this legislative desert include how each chamber has been structuring their legislative process. For example, current Senate leadership has frequently chosen a voting procedural approach that limits the number of amendments that can be offered by other Members once the bill is on the floor. The use of this tactic is to try to ensure that rank and file Members will not have the opportunity to offer policy alternatives or further delay votes on priority pieces of legislation. In fact, the percentage of roll call votes on amendments is less than 20 percent, down from 67 percent 13 years ago.
Furthermore, Committees are meeting to consider legislation at strikingly low rates. In 2015 and 2016, House committees met 254 times to consider legislation, while Senate committees met 69 times. Compared to 2005 and 2006, when the House and Senate met 449 and 252 times, respectively.
But what does all of this mean for us, and why should we care? Essentially, it means that critical opportunities are being missed, and ineffective policies are allowed to remain. It also means that Nation's ability to develop and advance will be compromised by the on-going inability of our Congressional branch to legislate. Our federal policies must reflect our expanding knowledge and new experiences. Historically, Congress has even been the catalyst for change by creating incubators of experimentation and supporting alternative approaches to current policy dilemmas. However, if Congress can't figure out how to carry out its most fundamental job, everyone will experience the impact of this gridlock. Our federal policies will fail to support the advancements of science and technology that could create a healthier and more secure Nation. And the list of missed opportunities goes on.
We hope that this time next year will find us writing about a very different scenario, but in the meantime, it is incumbent on all of us to make our government work for the people-- "We the people, by the people."
*Contributing Author: Madison Roberts