Mitch McConnell said the 115th Congress was 'the best,' but it's more dysfunctional than ever
(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on January 31, 2019.)
A top spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., summed up the legislative achievements of the Republican-controlled 115th Congress as such: “The most accomplished Congress in decades.” McConnell declared that it was "the best … in my time in the Senate."
The public, however, disagreed. According to a Gallup survey conducted immediately after the 2018 midterm elections, only 21 percent approved of Congress and 74 percent disapproved. The number of Americans who liked what “the most accomplished Congress in decades” was accomplishing hovered around 18 percent throughout 2017 and 2018. While Congress’s approval is usually low (31 percent of Americans have approved of the institution, on average, since Gallup first began tracking such sentiment in 1974), 18 percent is a lot lower than 31 percent.
This raises two questions. Was the 115th Congress really “the most accomplished” in decades given that so few people approved of its accomplishments? Was the Senate’s legislative record really the best it has been in more than 30 years, as McConnell claimed? A closer inspection of what senators did over the last two years suggests that the answer to both questions is "no."
The Senate's overall legislative productivity appears, at first, to affirm McConnell's favorable assessment. The institution has actually been on a lawmaking streak, passing more bills in every two years since 2013. After approving only 364 bills in the 112th Congress (2011-2012), the Senate passed 378 in the 113th (2013-2014), 427 in the 114th (2015-2016), and 585 in the 115th. The Senate appears to have been especially productive in the 115th Congress. It passed more bills in 2017 and 2018 than it has in any two years going back to 2005-2006, when the 109th Congress passed 684 bills.
Yet, appearances can be deceiving. On closer inspection, the Senate’s recent record appears productive only when juxtaposed with the nadir hit by the institution in the 112th Congress. The total number of bills passed by the Senate in the 115th Congress is nevertheless quite low, remaining well below the 1,043 bills that it has passed, on average, going back to the 83rd Congress (1953-1954).
A review of the substantive content of the bills passed by the Senate during the "most accomplished Congress in decades" suggests that its limited productivity gains are based mostly on minor legislation.
For example, of the 585 bills that the Senate passed over the last two years, 106 renamed post offices or other federal buildings. One bill renamed a piece of legislation that was enacted into law in 2012 in honor of the late Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. Twenty-five bills temporarily extended existing programs or delayed pending deadlines. On six occasions, senators made routine technical corrections to legislation that they previously had passed. The Senate also approved 33 bills that were commemorative in nature. Among these were such "historic" bills as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park Central Parking Facility Authorization Act (HR 4009; Public Law 115-178) and a bill to designate the Nordic Museum in Seattle, Wash., as the National Nordic Museum (S. 2857).
Looking at how the Senate passed legislation over the last two years is also helpful. It is a useful way to determine if a bill is significant, or otherwise considered controversial by senators, given that senators typically approve minor bills by voice vote and unanimous consent whereas they usually require a recorded vote to pass major bills. In the 115th Congress, a recorded vote was needed to pass legislation on only 52 occasions. On the 533 other times when the Senate passed legislation, a voice vote or unanimous consent was sufficient.
To be fair, today's Senate may be more productive. However, its members have struggled to debate, much less pass, major legislation on a regular basis. Unlike the period before 2013, today's senators neither deliberate nor legislate when it comes to significant issues of concern to the public like border security, immigration, and healthcare. This was on display throughout the government shutdown, when senators worked hard to avoid taking action in it. It was also on display during the early days of the 115th Congress when President Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate should have been especially productive. Instead, Republicans struggled to approve their agenda, mostly because of the Senate's inability to function. Unlike their House colleagues, Republicans in the Senate failed to pass a single major bill during the first eleven months of the 115th Congress.
Far from being “the best,” today’s Senate looks more dysfunctional than ever.