Oh, Congress: They Really Just Can’t Agree on Much of Anything

While some might say the lack of activity in Congress in 2011 is a good thing (the no action, no harm mentality), the numbers certainly back up the feeling that Congress has been largely missing in action when it comes to proactively enacting laws to better our country.

No political fights here about who is to blame. Just some statistics from The Washington Post that demonstrate the depth of what has not taken place.

Through Nov. 30, the House had passed 326 bills, the fewest in at least 10 non-election years, according to annual tallies in the Congressional Record. The Senate had approved 368 measures, the fewest since 1995.

By comparison, the House approved 970 bills in 2009 and 1,127 in 2007. The Senate totals for those years were 478 and 621, respectively. (Both chambers are expected to pass more bills before adjourning this month, but probably not enough to change the overall picture.)

And the White House need not fear an ink shortage — Obama had signed only 62 bills into law through November. The last time there was a new Republican majority in the House and a Democrat in the White House, 1995, President Bill Clinton signed 88 measures.

James Thurber, the director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, called the overall numbers “Exhibit A in showing how dysfunctional the Congress has become.”

In particular, Thurber noted that Congress has spent significant time and political effort this year squabbling over a series of short-term spending bills and raising the debt ceiling.

“The failure of the appropriations process has limited their ability to do other things,” Thurber said.

As for bills becoming law, split control of Congress has obviously played a role in the relatively low number; the House and Senate have had difficulty agreeing on anything this year.

The last comparable dynamic came in 2001, when Republicans controlled the White House and the House and Democrats held the Senate after May, when Sen. James Jeffords (Vt.) left the GOP. President George W. Bush signed 136 bills into law that year. 

No Fix Apparent for Congressional Schedules

Unusual schedules in Congress this year have been said to contribute to the disconnect between the House and Senate. Unusual refers to the timing and duration of recesses — and the fact that they are not coordinated between the two chambers. A repeat appears to be in store for 2012.

The release from the House Republican majority said the calendar is a way to "create certainty, increase efficiency and productivity in the legislative process, protect committee time and afford members the opportunity to gain valuable input from their constituents at home." The last phrase may be the most important, translating to lots of time to raise funds and campaign for re-election.

House members will rarely be in Washington for more than two weeks at a time after a five-week opening stretch. The summer recess grows in length (from August 3 to September 10) partially due to the political conventions. District time is scheduled for October 5 through November 13.

On a side note, the last time Congress finished its business before the election was 1996.

Senate Democrats are said to be nowhere close to revealing their full calendar, although aides report that senators will be at work in several weeks when House members are back home and will plan recesses in several weeks when the House is in session.

Coming off a year of record low public approval and a lack of significant progress in so many areas, you would think the two sides might try something different. Or at least give the impression there would be an effort to work together by being in the same city at the same time.