House Dysfunction by the Numbers: 724 Votes, Only 27 Laws Enacted

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the former speaker, had a positive spin on the five days and record-breaking 15 voting rounds it took him to win the gavel in January. “Because it took this long,” he said after the ordeal, “now we learned how to govern.”

But as the first year of the 118th Congress draws to a close, the numbers tell a different story — one that doesn’t involve much governing at all.

In 2023, the Republican-led House has passed only 27 bills that became law, despite holding a total of 724 votes.

That is more voting and less lawmaking than at any other time in the last decade, according to an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a far less productive record than that of last year, when Democrats had unified control of Congress. The House held 549 votes in 2022, according to the House clerk, and passed 248 bills that were signed into law, according to records kept by the Library of Congress, including a bipartisan infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the first bipartisan gun safety bill in decades.

The list of this year’s accomplishments is less ambitious and more bare minimum, such as legislation to suspend the debt ceiling and set federal spending limits that helped pull the nation back from the brink of economic catastrophe. The tally also includes two temporary spending measures to avoid government shutdowns. The House cleared the must-pass annual military policy bill last week before leaving for the year, though it is not known when President Biden will sign it into law.

The numbers reflect the challenges that have plagued Republicans all year and are likely to continue, and maybe even get worse, in 2024: a tiny majority that requires near unanimity to get anything done; deep party divisions that make unanimity all but impossible; and a right wing whose priority is reining in government, not passing new laws to broaden its reach.

The raw number of laws passed is not always the best way to capture the productivity of a Congress, because some catchall bills incorporate dozens of smaller, sometimes highly significant, bills that hitch a ride. But this year was grossly unproductive even by the lower standards of what’s possible in divided government and after taking into account the reality that not all bills are created equal. In 2013, for example, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate, just as they do today, the House passed 72 bills that were signed into law.

Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Congress’s productivity issues this year reached a “low point.” She attributed it to deepening political polarization and to the fractured House Republican conference with its too-slim-to-govern majority.

“Democrats as a party are much more interested in having government do things,” Ms. Reynolds said. “A lot of what Republicans are motivated by is the pursuit of ideological purity. The ideological difference around the role of government makes it harder to imagine the sets of things on which the Republican House, especially with its divisions, would get together with a Democrat-led Senate and a Democrat president.”

Despite the low number of bills signed into law, the House saw a frenzy of activity on the floor. That included numerous votes for numerous speaker candidates (19 across two historic speaker elections), multiple attempts to expel Representative George Santos of New York from Congress (three), failed and successful votes on censuring Democratic lawmakers (six) and dozens of votes on hard-right amendments to appropriations bills that ultimately did not pass, or proved to be non-starters in the Senate because they were laden with conservative policy priorities.

The mismatch between the number of votes taken and the number of laws passed is something far-right House Republicans might consider a win. One of the demands the faction made of Mr. McCarthy in January as they were withholding their support to make him speaker was to open up the legislative process and allow more votes on the floor.

And some of the votes happened because House members defied the speaker and forced them against his wishes, like a resolution to impeach Mr. Biden over his border policies and a move to censure Representative Adam B. Schiff of California and fine him $16 million.

“It’s a good reminder that not every vote is in pursuit of an actual legislative product,” Ms. Reynolds said.

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed frustration at their inability to get things done. “If we don’t change the foundational problems within our conference, it’s just going to be the same stupid clown car with a different driver,” Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota vented to reporters in October after Mr. McCarthy’s ouster.

But those foundational problems remain.

Rebellious right-wing Republicans, angry at Speaker Mike Johnson for relying on Democrats to pass legislation to avoid a government shutdown, voted to block two major spending bills from coming to the floor.

That marked the fourth time this year that House Republicans broke a longstanding code of party discipline by refusing to back procedural measures proposed by their own leaders that must be passed to bring legislation to the floor. That did not happen once under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the House for a total of eight years, or under the previous two Republican speakers, Paul D. Ryan or John A. Boehner.

When it came to the politics of retribution and revenge, however, the House had a historically productive year. It sometimes took multiple attempts, but Republicans were ultimately successful at formally censuring three Democratic members of the House: Mr. Schiff and Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Minnesota and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

Before this year, only two members had been censured in almost four decades.

“I suspect that has something to do with the breakdown on the Republican side of party leadership,” said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “There’s no restraining of members from going to the floor.”

It took the House three tries, but it also made history when it voted to expel Mr. Santos, making him the first person to be expelled from the House without first being convicted of a federal crime or supporting the Confederacy.

Republican leaders tried to frame the year as productive, in its own way.

In his end-of-year recap, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader, said Republicans had succeeded in passing legislation to “confront rising crime, unleash American energy, lower costs for families, secure President Biden’s wide-open border, combat executive overreach and burdensome agency rules, and refocus our military on its core mission of national security.”

But many of those bills amounted to political messaging tools that would stand no chance of passage in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Other than the must-pass bills, those that did make it into law addressed the smallest of small-bore issues, such as the 250th Anniversary of the United States Marine Corps Commemorative Coin Act and a bill to designate the clinic of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Gallup, N.M., as the Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura V.A. Clinic. On Tuesday evening, Mr. Biden signed into law the Duck Stamp Modernization Act of 2023, which allows waterfowl hunters to use of electronic federal duck stamps instead of physical ones to meet licensing requirements.

In his farewell speech to Congress, Mr. McCarthy highlighted as one of his hallmark achievements of the year a successful effort to prevent a new law. The measure blocked a rewrite of the criminal code for the District of Columbia that would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses while increasing them for others.

“The president threatened to veto it,” Mr. McCarthy said, “but we did it anyway, and we stopped him and it became law.”



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