WASHINGTON — The current Congress, facing a backlog of unfinished business and sliding approval ratings, is on pace to clear fewer bills than its predecessor — which had the least number of measures signed into the law since modern record keeping began in the 1940s.
Since the 113th Congress convened in January, the Senate has been in session 80 days and the House 84 days. Lawmakers passed 15 bills that were then signed by the president. That’s eight fewer than in the first six months of the last Congress and 19 fewer than in the same stretch of the 111th Congress.
“The 113th Congress is on track to be even less productive than the historic 112th Congress,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The problem arises from a Republican House unwilling and unable to engage in the normal process of negotiation and compromise with the president, and their continued willingness to live with a destructive sequester.”
Left undone have been major pieces of legislation including a budget agreement and a farm and food-aid policy bill. Lawmakers missed a July 1 deadline to prevent subsidized Stafford student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent. While the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill and farm legislation, the House hasn’t charted a way forward on either issue.
Ronald Peters, a congressional historian at the University of Oklahoma, said output is closely linked to party ideology.
“It is Republicans who don’t like Washington and prefer to spend as much time as possible in the districts,” Peters said in an email. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “has an additional problem — a fractured conference. So, if they cannot agree on what to do in D.C., they are better off staying home and cozying up to constituents.”
That performance isn’t sitting well with the public, who on average earn far less than lawmakers and can’t take as many breaks from the office. A June Gallup Poll found 78 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress does its job.
While most members of Congress earn $174,000 annually, the median household income in the U.S. was $50,054 in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
So far, the House and Senate have had eight complete weeks away from Washington, though the Congressional Record documents brief sessions — one lasted just three minutes — when legislative housekeeping was done in an all-but-empty chamber on a few of those days. Both chambers are scheduled to be gone for almost the whole month of August and the first week of September.
Most weeks, the first votes are scheduled at 5:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. on Monday, and lawmakers often leave by Thursday evening.
It’s far from a typical American work schedule.
In a 2008 survey by Opinion Research Corp., 52 percent of respondents reported taking one week or less of paid vacation the previous year. Those figures have only gotten worse since the economic downturn, said John De Graft, who heads the vacation advocacy group Take Back Your Time.
Lawmakers’ time away is hardly a vacation, according to staff members. Those weeks away from Washington, formally called “district work periods,” are designed to provide time for work-related travel (Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., for instance, was in Afghanistan this week) or for office hours and town meetings back home.
“It’s critical for members to have district work periods to hear from their constituents on a variety of matters, including chronic unemployment, the Senate’s inaction on student loans and the next steps toward addressing immigration and our debt crisis,” said Rory Cooper, an aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Those constituent meetings can turn nasty. In August 2009, as Congress considered sweeping changes to the health insurance system, town-hall meetings erupted into shouting matches.
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, a member of a bipartisan group of House members that’s drafting an immigration overhaul plan, said he’s bracing for heated August meetings, similar to what members experienced when they last considered immigration changes in 2006.
“I expect the big push from both sides to be over August like we experienced the last time we tried to bring this up,” said Carter before the July 4 break. “There are a lot of people who weren’t here in ‘06 and don’t remember how rough that was. We ought to be warning them because it is rough.”
This year began with a bang, as the 112th Congress in its waning days cleared a bill that extended Bush-era tax cuts except for those on higher-income people and averted cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.
After the new Congress was sworn in Jan. 3, the pace slowed as lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a long-term alternative to sequestration. While both chambers passed their own budget blueprints for fiscal 2014, they haven’t entered into negotiations to reconcile the differences.
The Senate deadlocked on proposals to broaden requirements for gun background checks in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
Also unresolved is a deal on raising the federal debt limit. The Treasury is expected to hit its $16.7 trillion borrowing cap sometime between October and December.
Congress took one action after public outcry about the automatic spending cuts: passing rules to prevent furloughs of air traffic controllers that threatened long lines at airports.
The House passed the annual authorization of defense programs and two of the dozen appropriations bills for next fiscal year — the ones covering homeland security and military construction. Congress also cleared an omnibus spending bill to provide funding for federal programs through the end of the current fiscal year and sent the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization to the president for his signature.
The slow start isn’t viewed as problematic by some House Republicans, said Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who served in the House from 1995 to 2008.
“I think a lot of Republicans feel they were put there to stop the Obama agenda,” Davis said. “The 2010 election was not about putting Republicans in power but about putting a check on the President. You can look at it as the least productive Congress, but a lot of them see that as their job.”