4:23am

Sat December 31, 2011
Politics

This Year In Congress: Much Drama, Little To Show

Originally published on Sat December 31, 2011 8:05 am

Congress got plenty of attention this year, but it was for all the wrong reasons.

There were at least three countdowns to shutdown, there was the debt-limit fight, plus the will-they-or-won't-they drama earlier in December over the payroll tax holiday. Looking at how few bills were actually signed into law this year, one might conclude this session was mostly sizzle and not much steak.

"I mean, I knew it was going to be bad this year, but I didn't realize like how bad it was," says Tobin Grant, an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University.

Grant developed an index to measure Congress' productivity. After looking at the numbers, he says this Congress is on pace to be the least productive since the '80s — not the 1980s, but the 1880s.

Grant says he'd consider very few of the 80 bills signed into law so far this session to be major legislation.

Multiple bills continue funding that had already been ongoing. Others, he says, include "taking a bold stance in favor of 9/11 heroes and autism" with the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act and the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act. Congress also passed 10 resolutions naming post offices.

Now, this is the first of a two-year Congress, and the first year is always less productive. This one, though, has been especially unproductive.

In 2011, Congress did pass the Deficit Reduction Act, three free-trade bills and a patent-reform measure. However, much of its time was spent racing against those countdown clocks, passing short-term extensions to keep the government open for business and fighting right up to the brink over matters that in the past have been routine.

"When you're dealing at this level with issues that are so polarizing, they will basically suck all the oxygen out of both chambers," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers.

A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says having so few bills signed into law isn't a problem: "Good governance is not measured by the tally of bills passed or the expansion of the federal government, but by the quality of the legislation," she said.

Meanwhile, the House has complained all year that the Democrat-controlled Senate won't take up the bills it does pass.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says there's something more at play here when it comes to House Republicans.

"They will brook no compromise to their principles," he says.

Mann prides himself on being a nonpartisan analyst, but he says this year blame for congressional dysfunction isn't equally divided between the two parties. The Republican Party, he says, "has become just adamant about taking hostages and making nonnegotiable demands."

Mann says the goal, once stated quite bluntly by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is denying President Obama a second term.

"Everything in the legislative process is part of a permanent campaign. It's no longer just a tussle. It's an all-out war," Mann says.

This year wasn't even an election year, which means people may want to temper their expectations for congressional productivity in 2012.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

President Obama's higher job approval rating stands in contrast to those of a vastly unpopular Congress. For Congress those ratings at a record low. NPR's Tamara Keith has this look at what House Republicans and Democrats actually accomplished this year.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Congress got plenty of attention this year, but it was for all the wrong reasons:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thirteen hours left for lawmakers to reach a budget deal and prevent that government shutdown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Twelve hours to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Less than nine hours left until the federal government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He'd be forced to shut down just...

KEITH: There were at least three countdowns to shutdown. There was the debt limit fight, plus the will-they-or-won't-they drama earlier this month over the payroll tax holiday. But if you look at how many bills were actually signed into law this year, one might conclude this session was mostly sizzle and not much steak.

TOBIN GRANT: I mean, I knew it was going to be bad this year, but I didn't realize like how bad it was.

KEITH: Tobin Grant is an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. He developed an index to measure the productivity of Congress. After looking at the numbers, he says this congress is on pace to be the least productive, not since the 1980s, but since the 1880s. Of the 80 bills signed into law so far this session, Grant says very few of them are what he'd consider major bills.

GRANT: Continuing the funding that we've been doing, so you see that a bunch of times and then, like, naming a post office or taking a bold stance in favor of 9/11 heroes and autism.

KEITH: He's referring to the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act, the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act and 10 resolutions naming post offices.

REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN: Designating the post office in Ballwin, Missouri.

REPRESENTATIVE LINDA SANCHEZ: 14901 Adelpha Drive in La Mirada as the Wayne Grisham Post Office.

REPRESENTATIVE: In Westfield, Massachusetts as the William T. Trant Post Office.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN OLVER: As the John J. Cook Post Office.

KEITH: Those voices are Representatives Todd Akin, Linda Sanchez, Darrell Issa and John Olver. Now, this is the first of a two-year Congress, and the first year is always less productive. This one, though, has been especially unproductive. In 2011, Congress did pass the Deficit Reduction Act, three free trade bills, and a patent reform measure. But much of its time was spent racing against those countdown clocks, passing short-term extensions to keep the government open for business and fighting right up to the brink over matters that in the past have been routine. Ross Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers.

ROSS BAKER: When you're dealing at this level with issues that are so polarizing, they will basically suck all the oxygen out of both chambers.

KEITH: A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says having so few bills signed into law isn't a problem. Quote: "Good governance is not measured by the tally of bills passed or the expansion of the federal government, but by the quality of the legislation." Meanwhile, the House has complained all year that the Democratic-controlled Senate won't take up the bills it does pass. Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution says there's something more at play here when it comes to House Republicans.

THOMAS MANN: They will brook no compromise to their principals.

KEITH: He prides himself on being a non-partisan analyst, but he says this year blame for congressional dysfunction isn't equally divided between the two parties. The Republican Party, he says:

MANN: Has become just adamant about taking hostages and making non-negotiable demands.

KEITH: Mann says the goal, once stated quite bluntly by the Senate minority leader, is denying President Obama a second term.

MANN: Everything in the legislative process is part of a permanent campaign. It's no longer just a tussle. It's an all-out war.

KEITH: And 2011 wasn't even an election year, which means you may want to temper your expectations for congressional productivity in 2012. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.