The terms ‘gridlock,’ ‘brinksmanship’ and ‘partisan politics’ have been used so frequently to describe Washington policymaking that critics of government lethargy are running out of adjectives.
Yet for all the recycled verbiage, do the criticisms ring true?
A recent Wall Street Journal/ NBC poll found that Congress has hit rock bottom, drawing a disapproval rating of 83 percent from respondents. That’s the highest level of disapproval from voters since the poll started.
The scathing reviews prompt a wider discussion about the activity, or inactivity, of this 113th Congress and where it ranks all-time.
And the answer?
In terms of bills enacted, this Congress is on pace, by far, to shatter the record as the most futile in modern government history.
“Real historians will tell you that the period right after the Civil War had the same level of vitriol and polarization as now,” observed Dr. Jack Citrin, director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and a political science professor.
When asked if the 113th Congress is the worst in history, as the polling suggests, Citrin said he couldn’t offer an evaluative judgment of whether the low production is a good or bad thing.
“Some people will say, ‘less is more,’ and if you’re a libertarian who is opposed to government doing a lot of things you say this is just great, fabulous,” he added.
To look purely at the numbers, however, you might find yourself stunned.
The 113th Congress has completed roughly 7 months of the session (which is two years in length), and thus far has enacted 21 bills and resolutions.
That puts the body on pace to pass about 72 pieces of legislation. By comparison, the 112th Congress (2011-2013), which was not exactly known for its congeniality and diplomatic skills, managed 284 bills.
The 111th Congress (2009-2010) moved through 385 bills, and the 110th Congress (2007-2009) enacted 460 pieces of legislation.
Those figures are courtesy of the nonpartisan, civic-minded site,
which culls its information from the Congressional online library.
Berkeley Public Policy Professor and long-time budgetary expert, Dr. John Ellwood, highlighted this legislative drought as the direct result of the most polarized Congress in modern government history. “There’s no doubt,” Ellwood said. “I mean, remember the Speaker [John Boehner] has come out and said, what he wants is nothing!’”
Like his governmental studies colleague, Ellwood agrees the notion of whether that is a positive or negative development depends entirely on whom you ask.
“You think it’s a bad thing if you think the government can do good or that the government is necessary to run a complex society,” Ellwood said. Conversely, he said, “If I’m a conservative Republican, or a Tea Party type, no I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘Do Nothing Congress.’ No, we’ve done something. We’ve prevented action!”
Ellwood said the best historical comparison to the current legislative gridlock would be the actual ‘Do Nothing Congress,’ the 80th Congress dubbed that by then president Harry S. Truman.
“A lot of very conservative legislation was either passed or proposed, and nothing went through because [President Truman] could veto things, and they wouldn’t give the president anything he wanted,” Ellwood said. Yet for all the notoriety of that Congress, it still managed to pass more than 900 bills. Ellwood attributes the stark contrast in productivity to a combination of factors.
For one, there was no such thing as an ‘omnibus’ bill back in the 1940’s, he said, and legislative bodies covered more topics through less comprehensive, more bite-sized bills. Secondly, Ellwood said Truman was more fiscally conservative and generally didn’t engage in the type of economic battles we see today.
Both political experts agree that divided government also plays a role, but isn’t inherently an obstacle to getting things done. “It’s really the political dynamics and the division between president and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, within the Republican Caucus- all of those things make it very difficult even to get to a point of *negotiation between the two houses,” Citrin said.
There’s also the issue of party members who have moved further and further away from the political center.
“There used to be moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats,” Citrin said. “No more.” On a positive note, things could be more tumultuous. “Remember the Civil War,” Ellwood posited. “One guy from South Carolina took out his cane and almost killed a U.S. Senator on the floor of Congress.”
Those days, at least, appear to be behind us.