Dysfunction on the Hill

DYSFUNCTION ON THE HILL…. We knew, shortly after Democrats reclaimed the congressional majority in 2006, that governing might be a little, shall we say, tricky.

The Bush White House didn’t really have a policy agenda, and even if it did, Democrats weren’t likely to support it. Likewise, Democratic lawmakers were filled with ambitious ideas, but had to wrestle with presidential vetoes and a Senate Republican caucus that blocked floor votes on practically everything. All the while, there was a historic presidential election dominating the landscape, with members of both parties waiting to see whether their priorities may stand a better chance in 2009.

Roll Call reports on the results from the last two years.

Members of the 110th Congress introduced nearly 14,000 pieces of legislation, more than any Congress since 1980, but only about 3.3 percent of the bills actually were signed into law, the lowest success rate since 1976.

While the percentage of bills that pass has dropped significantly over the past two decades, the number of ceremonial bills — naming post offices and other federal buildings — has risen dramatically, squashing the substantive work of Congress into fewer and fewer pieces of legislation.

Of the 449 bills that became law in the 110th Congress, 144 of them — 32 percent — did nothing more than rename a federal building.

That sounds pretty bad, and by most standards, it is. But the statistics here can be somewhat misleading.

First, the 3.3% success rate uses all introduced bills as a baseline. That’s unwise — plenty of lawmakers introduce plenty of legislation they have no intention of passing. Some are symbolic gestures, and some are about scoring points back home, but it skews the overall numbers considerably.

And second, the significance of the bills, not the size of the number, matters more. This Congress passed a massive bailout package, a modernized GI Bill, and a minimum wage increase. Plenty of good bills died for a variety of reasons, but these are three items that will have a lasting impact.

Even taking this into account, though, the last two years haven’t exactly been a model of political function and efficiency. With Bush on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and Reid/Pelosi on the other, it wasn’t expected to be. Expect the 111th to be far more productive.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.