You Only Have Yourself to Blame for Congress' Ineptitude

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You have probably heard that the current Congress is, to put it kindly, not getting a lot done. Perhaps the word "historic" was used. Well, it's true. The 113th Congress, which started work in January, is on a torrid pace of inactivity. In one sense, though, it's not exactly Congress' fault. It's sort of yours.

Let us explain. You've probably seen some version of the graph below. On Tuesday, the Huffington Post presented one, calling the lack of new legislation "not an insignificant feat" — particularly since the 112th Congress, which ended in January, was the least productive since the '40s. The graph below, which uses data from GovTrack, shows the total number of bills enacted — passed by both chambers and signed into law — per Congress since the 93rd (1973-1975).

That's not really fair, of course, since the 113th Congress has only been on the job for six months, one quarter of the time the other Congresses have had. Even if the Congress finalizes four times as many bills, though, that only brings it to 60 total bills — still the least by far.

But that chart is still deceptive. First of all, it doesn't take into account the number of bills introduced. Here's each Congress since the 93rd once one includes all of the legislation that could possibly have been enacted. The little blue sections atop each bar are the bills and resolutions that became law — the data above. The purple sections are bills for which no major action was ever taken. The bills that died.

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In that light, the current and most recent Congress looks slightly better. The percentage of bills that become law has been on the decline, but the difference with other Congresses is slightly lower.

The Huffington Post article focused on another aspect of the 113th Congress: How it compares year-to-date with other Congresses. And the answer is: poorly. Only the 97th and 104th Congresses have been close in terms of pace, but the 113th is still significantly lower in terms of bills signed into law. In part, that's because the Congress has been slow at introducing new bills.

Below is the average number of bills and resolutions introduced each month since the 93rd Congress. The blue line shows the average per month; the red, the cumulative total. (Notice that the graph spans two years, the length of each Congress.)

By the end of June, most Congresses have introduced 7,339 bills and resolutions. This one has introduced 4,510 to date. Take fewer bills introduced, multiply it by a lower percentage of passage, and you get a historic low.

And now we get to the part where you take the blame. Congresses don't work in a vacuum, of course. There are two chambers that need to pass a bill and a president that needs to sign it into law. So we took a look at how the composition of a Congress compares to the laws enacted. The chart below shows three data points. The yellow is easy; it's the number of bills enacted as in the first graph. The red and blue lines, however, take some explaining. Each shows the percentage of a chamber of Congress that matched the party of the sitting president. So in 1982, the 97th Congress, there was a Republican president. The Senate had 53 Republicans, so the percentage that year was 53 percent. The theory being: if a party holds a majority in each chamber plus the presidency, more bills should be passed into law. Anytime the red (House) or blue (Senate) line climbs above the 50 percent line below, it means that the president has a majority in that chamber.

As you can see, the correlation is questionable. So we broke it down further. We looked at three scenarios — a majority of both chambers sharing the president's party, neither chamber having a majority that shared the president's party, and a split. The results were very surprising.

What this says is that more bills were signed into law on average when the Congress and the president were in opposition. When both chambers shared the president's party, nearly as many passed. But when a majority in one chamber shared the president's party and one didn't? Far, far fewer bills passed.

Which, of course, is the situation now. A situation that came about because of you, the American voter.

And here's the part where we let you off the hook. Here's how the most recent Congress — which largely shared the make-up of the current one — compared in bills passed to even the average of other split Congresses.

Far fewer bills passed. Because, after all, the last Congress was historic in its inability to get things done. And as you may have heard, this one is shaping up to be worse.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.