Congress heads home with dubious distinction: Far fewer laws than infamous Do Nothing Congress

Days before adjournment and the year-end holiday recess, Sen. Lindsey Graham was hardly feeling the holiday spirit.

As usual, the Senate was limping through a slow legislative slog: passing a small-scale bipartisan budget agreement that averts another federal government shutdown and softens the blow of sequestration, meandering through a defense authorization bill and trudging through a slew of judicial and administrative nominations.

“The new good government standard is we didn’t shut the government down. We’re slapping ourselves on the back for not shutting the government down,” groused Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “Even when we try to be functional, we’re dysfunctional.”

When they wrap up their business this week, senators will join members of the House of Representatives in returning to their districts with a dubious achievement they’ll not likely brag about to their constituents: being part of one of the least productive Congresses ever.

The 113th Congress is heading home and into the history books with a record of legislative futility. By the time the Senate finishes its business, this Congress will have passed slightly more than 57 bills into law. It’s on course to surpass the first session of 104th Congress, which passed 88 bills into law, in terms of its low productivity.

Critics say the current Congress makes the 80th Congress – dismissively dubbed by President Harry S Truman as the “Do Nothing Congress” – look like workaholics. That Congress enacted 395 public bills into law by the end of its first session, in December 1947, according to congressional records.

“By all objective measures, this is the worst Congress ever,” Tom Mann, a senior governance fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, said of the 113th. “But there are two main things: Important matters not addressed and destructive things done, like October’s government shutdown. They did a lot of stuff of no consequence. All the important stuff, they couldn’t get done.”

The 113th Congress didn’t pass a single appropriations bill, a farm bill, immigration legislation, anything to change or improve health care or anything thing to curb the debt.

This isn’t to say that the 113th hasn’t done anything. The budget deal, approving a $50 billion aid package for states battered by Superstorm Sandy, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, passing legislation to keep the nation’s helium reserves open, and setting new rate structures for federal student loans, were among some of the first session’s major accomplishments.

But Legislation Lite also ruled: Lawmakers agreed to name a Mississippi bridge after St. Louis Cardinals slugger Stan Musial, rename a subsection of the tax code after former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and name a veterans affairs medical center after the late Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla.

Mistrust and acrimony also gummed up the works. Frustrated by what he considered deliberate Republican blockage of President Barack Obama’s judicial and administrative nominees, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., changed the Senate rules, effectively eliminating the use of the filibuster for all but Supreme Court picks.

“There’s a reservoir of ill will the likes of which I’ve never seen in my years in the United States Senate,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Unable to achieve bipartisan consensus on big issues, the 113th Congress displayed a penchant for delaying action until the last minute or, in the case of October’s 16-day partial government shutdown, after it’s too late.

The short-term funding deal that reopened the government yielded a bipartisan House-Senate committee that produced a modest budget to keep the government operating through fiscal 2015.

While congratulating themselves for avoiding another shutdown fight with the deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lawmakers passed on dealing with the debt ceiling, potentially setting up another high-stakes fiscal fight in February or March.

“We kicked the can down the road one more time and missed the opportunity,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former White House budget director under President George W. Bush.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 24 of 31 bills that the 113th Congress passed into law by Labor Day were substantive, meaning they weren’t measures to rename post offices, commemorative coin authorizations or Congressional Gold Medal conferrals.

The numbers reflect a downward trend since the 110th Congress, which passed 45 substantive bills into law by the end of August 2007. The spiral coincides with the increasing political polarization between the parties in the House and the Senate, the study states.

Some have suggested that Congress hasn’t put in the time to get its work done. Normally coming in late on Mondays and usually out by midday on Thursdays, House lawmakers were scheduled 126 days in Washington during the first session.

They’re slated to spend less time in D.C. – 113 days – when they return from recess next month. The Senate was still in session this week and hasn’t projected how many days it will work next year.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, strenuously disagrees with the notion that his charges haven’t done their work. In his last news conference of the year, he pointed out that the Republican-controlled House passed 150 bills during the year.

Many of them, including numerous bills designed to kill the Affordable Care Act such as the Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act of 2013, died in the Democratic-held Senate.

“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” Boehner said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in July. “We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal. Unpopular? Yes. Why? We’re in a divided government.”

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed.

“By and large, Republicans were elected to stop the president and reduce the size and scope of government and Democrats were elected to push the president’s agenda and increase the size and scope of government,” Holler said.

So if American voters are frustrated with Congress’ performance and are looking to assign blame, Brookings’ Mann has a suggestion: get a mirror.

“The public is getting what it produced,” Mann said.