A Caveat on Congressional Productivity

On Thursday, Chris Cillizza examined an Obama statement in Texas: “This has become the least productive Congress in modern history, recent memory. And that’s by objective measures, just basic activity.” Cillizza agrees and extrapolates this a little too far, saying this Congress is the least productive in history. By the numbers many would argue this isn’t exactly accurate, but I’d argue he’s ultimately right.

First, if we take Obama’s statement at face value, he is right. This Congress is on pace to be the least productive in modern history (modern, in this instance, referring to the post-WWII period). However, it is decidedly not the least productive in history. The current Congress has thus far passed 98 laws. This is awful but it is not the fewest in American history. The 113th Congress, though it still has a couple months to legislate, is already more productive than several congresses prior to the Civil War. So strictly speaking this Congress will not be the least productive in history.

If you think that is a low-bar to evaluate policy productivity, you’re right. To fully examine policy productivity, we need to account for the need for policy. In short, what should Congress be doing. Reauthorizing existing policies and programs, addressing pressing social problems, or fixing broken policies are at the core of congressional responsibility. Sarah Binder examined policy demand in Stalemate to examine gridlock since 1947. She found that even when controlling for policy demand gridlock has still increased over the post-war period. This reaffirms what we already knew but doesn’t evaluate policy demand in the antebellum period (mostly due to data constraints), the last time we saw productivity levels this low.

We already know there were several antebellum congresses that passed fewer laws, so the 113this not the least productive in history. However, when put in the context of policy demand, it very well may be. The Federal Government today has more responsibilities than it did 150 years ago. The Industrial Revolution, and the economic and social problems that accompanied it brought enormous challenges to society and Congress, spurring a slew of labor legislation, economic regulations, and other policies addressing those problems. Modern shipping practices have facilitated interstate commerce. This has boosted economic potential but also made monitoring corporate financial and economic activity and controlling things like food borne diseases more difficult. Technological advances have brought the privacy versus security debate to the forefront of government functions as monitoring private conversations and access to private financial information has become easier.

Social and technological advances have created new problems for governments to address. As a result Congress has more to do. One could argue the best government governs the least, but in many ways that shirks social responsibilities already under the federal government’s purview. Legislators should oversee and direct existing programs toward the proper ends. Unfortunately, unproductive congresses often fail in this capacity. This Congress’s basic budget and spending squabbles have overshadowed this fact. According to CQ, almost a third of discretionary government spending in 2014 funded programs that have not been reauthorized by Congress. Government programs are potentially wasting money on outdated projects because Congress has failed to perform its legislative function.

Pending lawmakers do not want to return to a period where employees were required to work 60 and 80 hour weeks for extremely low pay, food quality standards were lax, basic infrastructure needs were not met, or wiretapping and information hacking goes unchecked, these problems demand attention. However, given the current policy environment these vital functions are largely ignored.

In short, the 113th Congress is not the least productive in history. But relative to policy demand it very well may be.