Congress began to pull out of the legislative doldrums last year but still has a long way to go before it returns to full health and the kind of freewheeling legislative action of previous decades, according to The Washington Times Legislative Futility Index, which found that despite some big bipartisan deals, the Senate remains a major stumbling block to passing bills.
Under Republican control last year, for the first time since 2006, theSenate did better than the previous four years under Democratic control â€” but still notched the fifth-worst year on record, passing relatively few bills and watching power shift to the House, which drove several of the major bipartisan deals that did get signed into law.
Those deals helped boost the House to a slightly better year than theSenate, with the lower chamber scoring the 13th worst year according to The Timesâ€™ index, which measures floor activity using data from the Congressional Recordâ€™s Resume of Congressional Activity stretching back to 1947.
Despite bipartisan bills â€” a multiyear highway funding bill, an end to the National Security Agencyâ€™s phone-records snooping, a permanent increase in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, a rewrite of education policy and a massive year-end spending deal â€” neither Democrats nor Republicans were particularly happy with 2015.
â€œNumbers are numbers, but I think all numbers have to be looked at in context. And the context of what you had last year was â€” you had divided government,â€ said Rep. Bill Flores, Texas Republican and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. â€œYou had a House that was very busy legislatively, and it worked a pretty decent, regular order process. Then you had a Senate, where you had obstructionist Democrats who kept blocking things from coming to the floor.â€
Democrats, meanwhile, said 2016 is already off to a bad start, with the first major vote in the House coming on a bill to repeal major parts of Obamacare and to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. President Obama has already vetoed that bill.
â€œWeâ€™re off to a bad start when the first bill of the session is a political sound bite â€” to repeal, for the 62nd time, the Affordable Care Act,â€ said Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the House Rules Committee, which helps control what bills reach the floor and what amendments are allowed to be offered.
â€œMost of the bills that come through are bills that are going nowhere. Theyâ€™re message bills. I understand it; maybe there is a place for that. But there also needs to be a place for substantive legislation to fix some of the problems,â€ Mr. McGovern said.
With 69 years of data, The Timesâ€™ index gives a sense for activity in the modern political era, dating back to just after World War II.
According to the data, the Senate passed a total of 180 bills in 2015, the fourth-least of all time, and just 36 of its own bills were signed into law, the fifth-worst in the past seven decades. The House passed 361 bills total, the 22nd worst, but just 77 of its own bills were signed into law â€” the fifth-worst on record.
Both chambers did better at voting, with the Senateâ€™s 339 recorded floor votes in the top half of all time, and the Houseâ€™s 703 total votes topping all but six other years on record. The Senate also spent 1,073 hours in session, and the House spent 804 hours in session â€” both about middle of the pack for the past seven decades. The Senate compiled about 9,000 pages in the Congressional Record, which was at the low end, while the House added more than 10,700, again near the middle of the pack.
Republicans hold a 54-46 edge over the Democratic caucus in the Senateâ€” a reversal from the 55-45 majority Democrats had the previousCongress â€” but the reversal did little to break the partisan gridlock that has gummed up the upper chamber for years.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, disputed The Timesâ€™ formula but declined to comment for this article.
A spokeswoman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the successes the chamber did notch last year happened when Republicans attempted to forge deals instead of working to roll back Mr. Obamaâ€™s agenda.
â€œWhen Republicans are willing to work towards bipartisan compromise instead of caving to the extreme right wing of their party, Democrats are there to work with them. Thatâ€™s why the Senate passed a number of bills last session with majority Democratic support,â€ said Kristen Orthman, the spokeswoman. â€œWe hope that this year, Republicans will work with us to pass bills to help the middle class. If they do, we stand ready to work with them.â€