'Do-Nothing' Congress Was Way More Productive Than the Current One

Congress procrastinates until the last minute on key issues.

Clouds fill the sky in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
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In 1948, a stonewalled and exasperated President Harry Truman campaigned against the 80th "do-nothing" Congress, a gridlocked legislative body that at the time was unlike any prior Congress. But even it managed to pass more than 900 bills during its two years in office.

At this rate, the current Congress won't even get close to that number. So far Congress has passed just 52 laws this year. Some were notable legislative accomplishments like the Violence Against Women Act and a student loan bill that ties loan interest rates to treasury notes.

But a host of the other bills passed in the 113th Congress have been little more than cosmetic. There was a bill to rename an interstate bridge, one to specify the size of commemorative baseball coins, and another to rename a section of the U.S. tax code after former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

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Divisions not only between the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House but also among factions within those chambers have been at the heart of the congressional dysfunction this year. In October, disagreements about whether to fund President Barack Obama's signature health care law in the annual spending bill led to a 16-day government shutdown.

On paper, it looks like as though the two bodies are making progress. The House and Senate both passed a farm bill and the Senate managed to push through a comprehensive and bipartisan immigration bill, but finding consensus has been elusive between the two houses.

"They are not talking to each other. They are each passing their own bills that have little chance of ever getting to the president's desk," says Michael DiNiscia, the associate director of the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University.

With 2013 coming to a close, the 113th Congress isn't expected to suddenly become more collegial, either. With few remaining days left this year, a bicameral budget conference is scrambling to unveil a bipartisan deal, but members of that group have signaled a "grand bargain" or even a more narrow compromise might not be reached.

In addition, during the remaining days, members will also have to hammer out a compromise on a farm bill to keep milk prices from rising, among other things. And they will have to agree on spending levels for the Pentagon's annual appropriations bill.

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Some say, however, the well has been poisoned.

In the Senate, Republicans have vowed to be even less cooperative after Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rammed through a rules change known as the ''nuclear option'', which will allow Democrats toconfirm some presidential appointees without the hindrance of a filibuster.

Heading into 2014, Democrats and Republicans will increasingly refocus their time and energy on the upcoming midterm elections and spend less time dealing with policy. In 2014, the entire House of Representatives and 27 Senators will campaign to keep their seats in Congress.

Americans aren't amused. Congress has seen historically low approval ratings in recent months with a Gallup poll finding just 9 percent of Americans thought Congress was doing a good job.

"We have lowered our expectations of what Congress is supposed to do. That is hardly good for Democracy," DiNiscia says.

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