Will that record get even worse now that the U.S. has divided government?
As a political scientist who studies Congress, I find it tempting to look to political history for guidance on what could happen with the new Congress.
Yet, if you look at the previous two instances since World War II where the United States had this form of divided government, the implications for legislative productivity could not be more different.
Some are productive
The common denominators for these three Congresses are that the incumbent president is up for re-election, the Senate is controlled by the president’s party and the House of Representatives is controlled by the opposition.
During the 98th Congress, Republican Ronald Reagan was president, with his party holding a 55-to-45 majority in the Senate and a whopping 103-seat deficit in the House, where Massachusetts Democrat Tip O’Neill was speaker.
Historians generally hold the 98th Congress in high regard for its bipartisanship during a period of divided government. As reported by the political scientist David Mayhew in his landmark study, “Divided We Govern,” its most important legislative accomplishments included:
-The declaration of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a federal holiday;
–Amendments to Social Security to preserve the pension system’s solvency that increased taxes and cut benefits;
–A major revision of the federal criminal code that included increased penalties for drug trafficking and terrorism;
–Reduction of the deficit through a package of spending cuts and tax hikes.
Looking beyond these highlights, the total of 667 laws enacted by the 98th Congress was well above the historical average of about 552 passed per Congress since the early 1970s.
Others are unproductive
Democrat Barack Obama was president during the more recent 112th Congress.
Following the Republican midterm sweep in 2010, Democrats held a 53 (including independents who caucused with Democrats) to 47 majority in the Senate, but trailed Republicans by 49 seats in the House.
This Congress arguably exhibited the most intransigent partisan divisions of the post-war period.
According to the Brookings Institute’s Vital Statistics on Congress, the 283 laws passed by the 112th were the fewest enacted by any Congress going back at least until the Korean War.
One thing should be pointed out in defense of Congress’ low productivity in recent years. Congressional scholar David Mayhew has written in Politico that counting the number of enacted laws is an overly simplistic measure of productivity.
That’s because Congress has increasingly turned to so-called “omnibus” legislation, or legislative packages that sweep up lots of smaller measures into one large bill.
As a result, one important bill passed by Congress today might reasonably be considered as equal to multiple major successes for a previous Congress. For example, Mayhew argues that the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the American Taxpayers Relief Act of 2012, both of which attempted to address the budgetary crises during Obama’s first term, were important omnibus legislative accomplishments.