Twenty-two. That’s how many bills have become law since the 113th Congress was sworn in on January 3, 2013. It’s one more illustration of the dysfunction that’s engulfed the Capitol.
One bill that did become law this year was the continuing resolution that funded the government through September 30. Of course, that was leftover business from the 112th Congress, considering the law went into effect halfway through the 2013 fiscal year.
Now, another continuing resolution is coming for the 2014 fiscal year. The House of Representatives has only passed four of the dozen required annual spending bills, and the Senate hasn’t passed any.
In fact, one day after House leadership yanked the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development spending bill from the floor, the Senate failed to overcome a key procedural hurdle on its version of the bill, leaving it in limbo. The bill is aptly nicknamed “THUD.”
To be clear, the number of laws adopted isn’t the best marker of a successful Congress. Previous Congresses have padded their totals by passing scores of critical legislation like creating “National Watermelon Month,” naming infrastructure after their colleagues, or honoring the NCAA Division III tiddlywinks champion.
OK, I made that last one up, but you get the point. Each Congress should be measured on the quality of its legislative record, not the quantity of the laws it passes.
Of course there isn’t much of a record to evaluate if lawmakers don’t enact laws. It’s also hard for them to pass legislation when they’re not in Washington.
Congress began its August recess on the second day of the month. This year, our lawmakers won’t return to the Capitol from what they call their “home work period” until September 9. Then, they only plan on spending nine days in session in September.
What about after that? The pace isn’t supposed to pick up much. Members are only scheduled to be in town for a total of 30 days over the last three months of the year. Most of those will be in October.
With all that time off, what exactly do lawmakers do when they are in session?
Well, because no one expects much to get accomplished, there’s a lot of shadow-boxing legislation. The House votes for the umpteenth time to get rid of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), and the Senate adopts a resolution designating July 27, 2013 “National Day of the American Cowboy.”
But even if the parties can’t come to an agreement about passing substantive new bills, they should at least be conducting legitimate oversight and holding hearings on future reforms. House and Senate committees should convene hearings regarding the federal programs they authorize to establish whether they’re working or not.
We would all benefit from the public discussion of options to improve mandatory spending programs that aren’t subject to annual spending reviews, such as Medicaid and Medicare. We would love to hear how the transportation bill that passed last summer is doing, and how effective the Superstorm Sandy spending has been so far. But we see precious little of this kind of oversight.
It’s not like there isn’t a lot on this Congress’s plate. There’s figuring out options on how to responsibly deal with the across-the-board cuts of sequestration and the spending reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The Farm Bill will expire soon and meaningful reforms are critically needed in that area. Comprehensive tax reform is on the docket.
Medicare and Social Security are facing significant funding challenges. As more of the nation’s 79 million baby boomers become senior citizens, those challenges aren’t going to get any easier. And of course those pesky annual spending bills — that’s only a constitutional requirement of Congress.
Our nation needs — and deserves — a legislature that works. So, members of the 113th Congress, do yourselves and the rest of us a favor: This August recess, get yourselves together and come back ready to work. Please.