Divided by politics and distracted by the impeachment inquiry, the 116th Congress is on pace to accomplish the least amount of work of any legislative session in the past century.
Midway through the two-year 116th session, lawmakers have approved just 109 policy bills, according to the www.congress.gov website, which is maintained by the Library of Congress.
At least a third of those simply renamed post offices or other federal facilities, authorized commemorative coins or made minor technical corrections. Consequently, fewer than 70 substantive bills passed both chambers of Congress in 2019.
Barring a sharp turnaround in 2020 — a year that will see further distractions with the impeachment trial, as well as the presidential and congressional elections — the 116th session will fall short of the 284 public laws enacted during the 112th Congress, in 2011-12. That’s the current record for the fewest bills approved during a session of Congress in the past 100 years.
By comparison, 568 bills were approved during the 78th Congress, during the final two years of World War II.
Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeatedly accused House Democrats this year of “ignoring the people’s business” in their rush to impeach President Donald Trump, the Senate itself only sent 107 bills to the House. That’s barely a quarter of the 426 bills that the House passed and sent over to the Senate.
Similarly, more than 70 percent of the 109 bills that passed both bodies this year originated in the House.
Lawmakers in both parties say the number of bills they approve — as well as the number they sponsor — doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of work they do. The Senate, for example, has reshaped the federal judiciary over the past three years, confirming two new Supreme Court justices, 50 circuit court judges and more than 130 district judges. Those actions are not included in the bill counts.
It’s also true that Congress has transferred more and more of its responsibilities to executive branch agencies in recent years, through the regulatory process. Lawmakers historically micro-managed federal decisions to a much greater degree.
For example, the last session of Congress to approve fewer than 284 public laws was the 59th, in 1905-06. The last of the 276 public laws approved that session was “an act for the relief of Harold D. Childs,” a Navy midshipman who died. It literally took an act of Congress to promote him posthumously, so his family could collect a larger pension.
Congress also used to approve budgets for individual federal agencies, rather than lumping them together in massive spending bills, as is common today. Every road or bridge that crossed a river also required congressional authorization.
Even by modern standards, though, the current pace of legislative activity is glacial. A Dec. 7 story in The New York Times described the Senate as a “den of ennui,” saying senators “privately admit to being downright bored.”
Nevertheless, the Idaho and Washington delegations managed to chalk up some minor successes in 2019 — although Sen. Marie Cantwell, D-Wash., was the only one who actually had a bill signed into law.
Cantwell’s legislation requiring the Bonneville Power Administration to compensate the Spokane Indians for construction of Grand Coulee Dam on reservation lands in the 1930s was signed by the president on Dec. 20.
“The tribe was just trying to get compensation for an injustice to them 80 years ago,” Cantwell told the Seattle Times. “We tried to make those voices heard.”
Cantwell has sponsored 19 bills so far this session. Other measures include the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act, which would enhance online privacy protection for individuals; the Grid Modernization Act, which addresses the security of the U.S. electrical grid; and the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, which would expand the federal low-income housing credit.
Cantwell’s colleague, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has sponsored 28 bills so far this session. The Poison Center Network Enhancement Act passed the Senate in July, but hasn’t yet been forwarded to the House; it reauthorizes and modernizes the national poison center hotline.
Other bills Murray sponsored include the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act; the Wild Olympics Wilderness Act; and the Healthy Families Act, which allows workers to earn up to seven days of sick leave per year.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is the main sponsor on eight bills this session.
Her legislation reauthorizing federal efforts to protect Americans from foreign-based fraud, spam and online deception passed the House on Dec. 16 and moved on to the Senate.
McMorris Rodgers also received a subcommittee hearing on her FASTER Act bill, which creates a fast-track recall procedure for potentially hazardous consumer products.
Her USA Act, which imposes fiscal penalties on programs that haven’t been reauthorized by Congress, hasn’t been considered by the House. However, it did get a hearing in October before the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Federal Oversight and Emergency Management.
The Idaho congressional delegation collectively sponsored 39 bills in 2019.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, accounted for 18 of them. That includes a two-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program. Although the bill itself didn’t pass, its provisions were included in the year-end funding bill that was approved earlier this month.
Other Crapo bills include the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which would increase the amount of compensation available to individuals who were exposed to radiation during U.S. nuclear bomb tests, and extend the life of the compensation trust fund.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, sponsored 12 bills, which ranks in the bottom 10 percent among his Senate colleagues.
His Aquifer Recharge Flexibility Act, which provides greater flexibility for aquifer recharge efforts on federal lands, passed out of committee and went to the Senate floor in September.
Risch also reintroduced legislation to modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act, which provides funding for wildlife conservation efforts through the purchase of hunting and recreational shooting equipment.
“Hunting and shooting sports are woven into the fabric of Idaho’s history, with generations of sportsmen and women passing down hunting traditions from father to son, mother to daughter. This is a legacy we must uphold and protect,” he said in a news release in July.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, sponsored six bills, including efforts to reorganize the 9th Circuit Court and add another district judge in Idaho. Crapo sponsored companion bills in the Senate, but they haven’t advanced in either chamber.
The newest member of Idaho’s congressional delegation, Rep. Russ Fulcher, has sponsored three bills so far. That includes a companion measure to Risch’s Aquifer Recharge Flexibility Act.
A second companion bill, the Enhancing Geothermal Production on Federal Lands Act, hasn’t moved in the Senate, but it did get a hearing in September before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
Fulcher’s first bill, the One Subject at a Time Act, is modeled after the rules of the Idaho Legislature. It’s intended to improve transparency and accountability by limiting bills to a single subject — thereby prohibiting the large, “omnibus” budget bills that have become common practice in Congress.
“This bill would end back-room deals and large ‘must-pass’ bills, and restore trust in our representative government,” Fulcher said when introducing the measure.
The legislation was referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in May, but hasn’t moved since — a fate shared by nearly 90 percent of the bills introduced so far in the 116th Congress.
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