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Lawmakers In Name Only? Congress Reaches Productivity Lows

Speaker John Boehner told reporters Tuesday that if a productivity problem existed in Congress, it was in the Senate, not his House.
J. Scott Applewhite
Speaker John Boehner told reporters Tuesday that if a productivity problem existed in Congress, it was in the Senate, not his House.

Here's a variation of the does-a-falling-tree-make-a-sound-if-no-one-hears-it riddle: Can the House be considered productive if it passes bills the Senate won't ever take up and the president won't ever sign?

According to Speaker John Boehner, the answer is yes — the House can be judged as very productive under such circumstances.

"The House has continued to listen to the American people and to focus on their concerns. Now, whether it's the economy, whether it's jobs, whether it's protecting the American people from 'Obamacare,' we've done our work," Boehner told reporters Tuesday.

"When you look at the number of bills passed by the House and the paltry number of bills passed by the Senate, you can see where the problem is," the speaker said.

What Boehner left unsaid is that it's easier for the majority to pass legislation in the House, where the rules essentially make the party in control an unstoppable force, than in the Senate. The rules there give the minority party a number of ways to stop legislation.

Using Boehner's definition of legislative productivity, according to the House has passed 140 bills so far during the 113th Congress, which ends in January 2015.

By contrast, the Senate has passed 39 bills. (Incidentally,, a nongovernmental website by Civic Impulse LLC, does a better job of breaking out the numbers for legislation passed by each chamber than the federal government's . Go figure.)

Boehner appears to be defining productivity down. The trouble is, most Congress-watchers are kind of old-school about measuring congressional productivity and use the number of bills signed into law by the president as the metric.

Looked at that way, the current Congress is headed for a record low in productivity with President Obama so far signing just 56 pieces of legislation into law. If Congress is as productive next year as this year (a big if, since it will be an election year, when legislative productivity often drops), it would put the 113th Congress somewhere north of 110 laws by the time it's in the history books.

That would be the lowest number of laws for a modern Congress. The next lowest was for the 112th Congress, which passed 284 laws. And to think Harry Truman regained his political footing by calling the 80th Congress of 1947-1948 — which passed 906 laws — the "do-nothing Congress."

While most voters might view the present congressional gridlock as a problem, there are those who aren't troubled at all by the inaction. For instance, there are plenty of Washington lobbyists whose job it is to maintain the status quo in terms of industry tax breaks or regulation. Congress' unproductivity means mission accomplished.

Big-government opponents are also in their element right now. Some conservative House lawmakers like Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Reid Ribble of Wisconsin have publicly said their constituents actually prefer a Congress with fewer, rather than more, legislative achievements. In their view, the less legislation Congress passes, the more liberty voters have. The Affordable Care Act is Exhibit A in the case against government, as far as they're concerned.

Democrats obviously have a different view. At a press conference, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California blamed what he called a Republican fixation on Obamacare for Congress' inability to pass other legislation.

"Some of us are very concerned that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, our Republican colleagues, have focused so much attention, in fact, obsessed on killing the Affordable Care Act, that they've failed to focus on the real needs of America," Becerra said.

"And that is to get Americans back to work, build our infrastructure, get the farm bill done, finally fix the broken immigration system, and deal with the budget in a way that makes sense to all Americans," he said.

All of this raises a question: If lawmakers don't make laws, are they really lawmakers?

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.