Despite GOP control of Congress and White House, lawmaking lagged in 2017
In 2017, Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, but unified GOP control of the legislative and executive branches didn’t lead to a burst of lawmaking.
The GOP-led 115th Congress enacted a total of 97 laws last year, the fourth-fewest for the first calendar year of a congressional session in the past three decades. That was 18 fewer than in 2015, the first year of the 114th Congress, when Democrat Barack Obama was president and Republicans ran both the House and Senate. The current Congress also enacted the sixth-fewest substantive laws (83) in its first year, six fewer than in 2015.
In our occasional examinations of Congress’ legislative productivity, we set a deliberately low bar for what makes a law substantive. We include any legislation other than those that rename buildings, award medals, commemorate historic events or take other purely ceremonial actions; any measure that makes a change in federal law (however tiny) or authorizes the spending of taxpayer dollars (however few) makes the cut.
In 2005, the first year of the GOP-controlled 109th Congress and with Republican George W. Bush in the White House, 161 laws were enacted, 124 of them substantive. By 2009, the first year of the 111th Congress, Democrats were in control of the House and Senate and Obama was president. That year, 125 bills became law, though only 79 were substantive.
By most accounts, the most significant law the 115th Congress has enacted so far has been the $1.5 trillion Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed in December. Besides reducing income taxes on individuals and businesses, the law repeals the 2010 Affordable Care Act’s mandate that most Americans carry health insurance.
But getting rid of the individual mandate, while significant, is short of Republicans’ original goal: to “repeal and replace” Obama’s signature accomplishment entirely. GOP efforts to repeal what’s become known as “Obamacare” failed repeatedly last year.
The health care and tax debates dominated much of Congress’ agenda in 2017, but not to the exclusion of all else. Congress set about reversing much of the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda: Nearly 20% of all the substantive laws enacted last year (16 of 83) were measures that voided specific Obama-era rules; most of those were passed early in the year, during the window provided by the Congressional Review Act.
Other significant laws included a sanctions bill targeting Russia, Iran and North Korea; a bill overhauling and extending veterans’ educational benefits; a measure intended to improve weather forecasting; and the first comprehensive NASA authorization bill in more than six years – which, among other things, sets a goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033.
It should be noted that our analysis counts only bills that became law by the end of the first calendar year of each Congress’ two-year session. However, besides the 97 enacted laws, Congress had forwarded 20 additional bills to the White House that President Donald Trump had not acted on by the end of 2017. As of Jan. 10, Trump has signed 11 of those bills into law, with action pending on the rest.
Drew DeSilver is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.