One of the best things I’ve read recently is Andrew Prokop’s piece in Vox about the successful enactment of the DATA Act, which makes government spending information more easily available. Prokop shows how members of Congress, political parties, interest groups, the executive branch and the presidency are involved in lawmaking, and how the (seemingly arbitrary and obscure) procedures, rules and norms of the House and Senate make that happen.

I’ll have some general comments later, but first, a bit about the numbers involved.

Prokop provides the basic statistics that show how few bills become laws. Poking at those numbers, however, tells us more. Start with the denominator, the more than 7,200 bills introduced in the current 113th Congress. More than 7,000 of those haven’t made it to a presidential signature, and won’t. And yet, that number reflects a lot of smoke and mirrors. Many bills aren’t intended to be laws; they’re press releases. Others are intended as partisan talking points.

And even serious bills may be overcounted. Many measures (including the one Prokop discusses) “die” in one Congress only to become laws in the next. It’s also common for separate House and Senate bills to be introduced, even if the authors intend to work together. Moreover, sometimes when a bill is revised — often before it even receives a committee hearing — the authors will handle the revisions by reintroducing it as a separate bill. It’s not unusual for “a bill” to have more than half a dozen iterations before it becomes law.

There are no rules about what a member can introduce as a bill, and in many cases there’s no real intention of making any kind of legislative effort. As far as I know, we don’t have kind of useful count of how many bills are serious attempts to make law, because the press release versions don’t make clear what they really are

Now look at the numerator: the number of bills that become law. That number is artificially high if we include post-office namings and the like. But it also can be artificially low. One of the reasons the Affordable Care Act was so enormous is that it swallowed up several ideas, many of them formerly separate, stand-alone bills. Andrianna McIntyre showed some of this in her excellent piece about the ACA last week, and she didin’t even mention the ill-fated Class Act or some of the more successful provisions. The raw statistics would suggest those bills “lost” and died in committee. In fact, they were winners.

One big conclusion: undercounts happens more frequently when Congress is passing landmark legislation, such as the 2009 stimulus, Dodd-Frank financial regulation, and the ACA. As a result, the raw statistics probably far understate the differences between the highly productive 111th Congress (2009-2010) and this do-nothing one.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.