December 29, 2014

In late spurt of activity, Congress avoids ‘least productive’ title

laws passed by recent congressesWith the 113th Congress now in the history books, we conducted a final tally of our nation’s legislative productivity — in terms of both total laws passed and of substance. Our calculation finds that the 113th just barely avoided the dubious title of “least productive Congress in modern history.” But that’s only because of an exceptionally active lame duck session.

In all, the expiring Congress enacted 296 laws, 13 more than the 2011-12 Congress. Of those, we categorized 212 as substantive by our deliberately generous criteria (that is, anything besides building renamings, commemorative-coin issuances and other purely ceremonial laws); that was four more than the previous Congress.

laws passed during lame duck sessionsOne might not have predicted such a finish. When Congress broke for its election recess, it had passed just 185 laws, putting it on pace to be the least-productive in recent history. In fact, we expressed some skepticism that lawmakers would end the year with a burst of activity.

But we were wrong: The 111 measures passed in the lame duck session (which lasted just over a month) accounted for well over a third (37.5%) of the 113th Congress’ entire legislative output — continuing a trend of more and more business being put off till after election season. That business included passing a $1.1 trillion spending bill that avoided another government shutdown, extending several dozen expiring tax breaks, and enacting a massive defense-policy bill that does everything from authorizing U.S. aid to forces fighting the Islamic State to extending the deadline for establishing a memorial to President John Adams.

To be sure, Congress was busy with the ceremonial stuff, too. Lawmakers made sure to award a gold medal to Jack Nicklaus and confer honorary citizenship on Revolutionary War hero Bernardo de Galvez y Madrid before leaving town for the holidays. We classified 71 of the 111 laws passed during the lame duck session as substantive, or 64% — the lowest such percentage among the past eight Congresses.

The most productive Congressional lame duck session, by the way, was the 107th Congress in 2001-02. As the nation was moving toward war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and continuing to grapple with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all but one of the 84 laws passed during that time were substantive, including the creation of the Homeland Security Department.

Topics: Congress

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Lyle W Hughart3 years ago

    It would have been appropriate to mention that the House passed many bills and the Senate sat on most of them. Had the Senate taken up the bills from the House it might have proved to be a more active session.
    BUT, passing fewer laws is not necessarily bad. Some time the public and businesses need a breather.

  2. Rich3 years ago

    I wonder how the 113th Congress stacks ujp against the Truman presidency’s 88th “Do Nothing” Congress?

  3. Jean Valmont3 years ago

    One of the assumptions here is that “productivity” is a good thing. There are many Americans who recognize that Congress is better off being “unproductive” than in passing legislation that will have a damaging effect. I applaud the Congress for not passing a lot of damaging legislation and hence remaining “unproductive.”

  4. HillRunner3 years ago


    This measure of Congressional productivity—”How many bills did they pass?”—is completely backwards, upside-down and counterproductive to our nations financial and operational viability.

    The inevitable consequence of a Congress seeking the press blessing as “productive” is an ever-expanding code of laws and regulations.

    Absolutely granted: Some will be necessary and even helpful.

    Yet too many bills, passed in a desperate attempt to look productive (read, “make work”), will only:
    – Require new hires to oversee or enforce them
    – Impose new taxes and other fees (plus their administrative load)
    – Over-solve nonexistent or trivial problems
    – Detour often-bright Congresspersons’ attention from inspecting and resolving our real problems of billions of dollars in corruption, misplaced help, favoritism and waste in almost every federal outlay from research to teaching welfare tricks to our growing class of by-choice welfare recipients.

    Smarter measure would be:
    – How many people are newly off of one or more kinds of government doles
    – How many people/families are newly how far above the poverty line
    – Math and literacy levels
    – Reduced crime levels
    – Lower infant mortality and adult infection rates

    Don’t these humane and pragmatic concrete measurements matter more than how many pages of incomprehensible résumé-padding a Congress passes?