Congress in action, or inaction? This Congress among the least productive

Just hours after the House passed a bill to keep the government open while negotiators work to hammer out a fiscal 2024 budget, the Senate approved the extension Thursday night. It was a rare action for this Congress, which is on pace to be one of the least productive in decades. (Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol)

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers passed a last-minute budget extension Thursday to head off a looming Friday government shutdown – just the 40th law passed by this Congress, which is on pace to be the least productive in at least a half-century.

Those 40 bills – four of which were continuing resolutions to extend the budget that Congress has been unable to pass since fiscal 2024 started Oct. 1 – are about 11% of what would normally be passed at this point in a typical congressional session.

The number of bills that have been passed by one chamber and are stalled in the other is only slightly better, at about 30%. The 118th Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2023, and runs through Jan. 3, 2025.

“The current Congress has produced, to date … 39 laws compared to, for example, 362 in the last Congress,” Craig Volden, director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, said before Thursday’s votes. “It’s not done yet, but that seems well below the pace we would expect.

“I don’t know about the least-effective ever in history, and there’s still time to go, but by those numbers, it seems like a big hill to climb,” Volden said.

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But Sarah Binder thinks it is irresponsible to “make our judgment based on the paltry number of laws enacted after one year.” Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, instead urged people to take a more holistic view of the Congress after its full term.

“I do think it’s important to take the measure of Congress after the full two years has elapsed,” Binder said.

Binder also believes that the low number of bills passed can be partially blamed on changes in the ways Congress has decided to legislate in recent years, with an increased emphasis on passing a few large bills rather than many smaller ones.

“Counting up the laws enacted … kind of misses the boat in how Congress has legislated over in the past, I would say two, three decades, which is the rise of what we think of as omnibus legislating, which is packing numerous measures into a single mammoth, often thousand-page bill,” she said.

Those mammoth bills include the 12 separate budget bills that keep the government open. But lawmakers have been unable to pass any of those, voting instead to pass “continuing resolutions” that keep operations funded at previous levels while they try to agree on a budget.

Since the start of the current fiscal year, Congress had passed three such resolutions, the last of which were set to expire this Friday and next. The House voted 320-99 Thursday afternoon to push those deadlines back to March 8 and March 22 and, just hours later, the Senate voted 76-13 to give the bill final approval and send it to the president for his signature.

The budget is not the only thing backed up. After Senate Republicans refused to pass military aide for Ukraine and Israel unless it was tied to immigration reform, a bipartisan group of senators spent weeks negotiating a border package – only to have it rejected by GOP senators who said it did not go far enough.

Ultimately, the Senate passed a $95 billion package of aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, but House leaders have refused to bring that bill up for a vote. Instead, they are insisting that senators take up House plans on both immigration reform and foreign aid.

In addition to partisan feuding between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, this Congress has been racked by GOP infighting that has brought the House to a standstill more than once.

House members took a historic 15 votes to elect a speaker last January, only to oust then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy in October. It took three weeks to elect his replacement, during which time all work in the House came to a standstill.

Volden believes that not all of this Congress’ problems can be attributed to a divided government, as he says the extreme lack of productivity “feels like this goes above and beyond a standard divided-government issue.”

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“It seems like that effect (divided government) is very small compared to the effect we’re seeing now,” Volden said. While divided government might lead to a 10% drop in productivity in most years, he said, the dropoff is nowhere near “what we’re seeing in the current Congress.”

Volden is not very optimistic about the future, pointing out that there is not a long line of bills that has passed one chamber and is awaiting approval from the other.

“So far, there have been 300 bills or so that have passed one chamber, either the House or the Senate,” Volden said. “If we compare that to the last Congress, there were 1,000 bills that passed at least one chamber, so compared to only 10% as productivem according to laws (passed), we’re at 30% in terms of bills passing one chamber, which is still well below the pace.”

Binder struck a slightly more optimistic tone, noting that in a presidential election year “you might think neither party wants to give the other party a win, but that’s not always the case.”

“It’s possible they do a tax deal. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised,” said Binder. But she does not expect great progress.

“Maybe Ukraine comes back in the mix. And then some things inevitably pass which are sort of under the radar that we’re not paying all that much attention to,” she said. “But it does seem that that’s not a big, hard list compared to the type of problems which I think many, even lawmakers, would identify.”

Ian McKinney(he/him)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Ian McKinney expects to graduate in May 2026 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. McKinney worked as a production intern for KJZZ’s “The Show.” He loves to try new things, is competitive and prides himself on helping other people succeed.