August 29, 2017

Congressional productivity is up – but many new laws overturn Obama-era rules

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., ascends the Capitol steps shortly before the Senate began its recess on Aug. 3, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., ascends the Capitol steps shortly before the Senate began its recess on Aug. 3, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Republican-controlled 115th Congress may not have been able to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, but it hasn’t been without legislative accomplishments. In fact, this Congress is among the most productive in recent years – though a sizable share of its laws to date have been aimed at scrapping Obama-era rules.

To date, Congress has passed 55 measures that have been signed into law, 46 of which we consider “substantive” by our deliberately generous criteria – that is, any legislation other than renaming buildings, awarding medals, commemorating historic events or taking other purely ceremonial actions. The current Congress is tied with the 110th (2007-08) for the fifth-highest count of substantive laws among the past 16 Congresses at this point in their respective first sessions. (This analysis of 30 years of records obtained from Congress.gov counts all measures that received final legislative approval before Congress left on its traditional August recess, even if they weren’t formally signed into law until later.)

The 46 laws we’ve tagged as substantive include 14 whose sole purpose was to overturn various rules adopted by the Obama administration, under the 1996 Congressional Review Act. This is by far the heaviest use Congress has ever made of the CRA. Before this year, in fact, only one regulation had ever been undone via the procedure specified in that law. Those 14 “resolutions of disapproval” account for about 30% of the substantive laws, and a quarter of all the laws, enacted so far by this Congress. (A 15th rule repeal, targeting a Transportation Department regulation that would have required many metropolitan planning organizations in the same region to merge, did not use the procedure outlined in the CRA.)

Pew Research Center has tracked Congress’ legislative production periodically over the past few years. This is the first time since the 111th Congress in 2009-10 that the House, Senate and White House all have been controlled by the same party. That Congress (controlled by Democrats and working opposite Barack Obama in the White House) enacted 63 laws by Labor Day of its first session, 39 of them substantive. These included the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the $840 billion stimulus package (formally called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and laws to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products.

Although the current Congress has passed more bills we count as substantive, it has been somewhat light on signature accomplishments so far. Besides funding the federal government for the rest of fiscal 2017 and avoiding a potential shutdown, Congress has enacted a sanctions bill targeting Russia, Iran and North Korea; passed the first comprehensive NASA authorization bill in more than six years; and approved a measure intended to improve weather forecasting.

You might have noticed from the chart above that there are considerably fewer ceremonial laws being enacted compared with the late 1980s and early 1990s. In years past, it was common for Congress to pass laws designating special days, weeks or months, such as “National School Yearbook Week” (Oct. 4-10, 1987) or “National Digestive Disease Awareness Month” (May 1989). But the proliferation of such “holidays” led to criticism that they were distracting Congress from more important work, so in 1995 the new Republican House majority changed its rules to prohibit consideration of any such legislation. The Senate did not follow suit, however; accordingly, such commemorations typically take the form of simple Senate resolutions, which don’t carry the force of law.

Topics: Congress, Federal Government

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.