How the 113th Congress Dodged the Top ‘Do Nothing’ Label
Policy + Politics

How the 113th Congress Dodged the Top ‘Do Nothing’ Label

REUTERS/John Sommers II

For most of its tenure, the 113th Congress appeared to be headed for the record books as the least productive body of modern times. 

Last July, gridlocked Democratic and Republican lawmakers departed for an undeserved five-week summer vacation – leaving behind a pile of unfinished business and a serious humanitarian crisis festering along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Related: House approves $1.1 trillion measure to fund government through Sept 30 


Congress has stumbled through several years of highly partisan, truncated government, with the Democrats in control of the White House and Senate and the Republicans in charge of the House – with little in the way of truly important legislation to show for their efforts. Now we are entering a new era of divided government, with a Democratic president and Republican Congress, and the question becomes can this system be any more productive?

Congress had passed just 142 bills by that time, according to a report by the Pew Research Center, including 34 that were largely ceremonial or frivolous. That put the Congress on track to pass the fewest substantive pieces of legislation in the past two decades over an equal period of time. 

Then exactly eight days after returning to work that fall, House members departed again on Sept. 18 to campaign through the Nov. 4 election. They left after approving a bill to prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month and President Obama’s request to arm and train Syrian rebels. 

By then, Congress had passed just 185 laws – another record low for that period of time that promised to make the 113th the granddaddy of all “Do-Nothing” Congresses of modern times, according to a follow-up study by the Pew Research Center. 

Related: ‘Do Nothing Congress’ Wants In on Obama’s War on ISIS    

Yet in the wake of the Republicans’ landslide victory in the mid-term election, lawmakers and their leaders returned to work with renewed vigor. And in less than a month, they had pushed through a blizzard of legislation – including a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, the extension of several dozen expiring tax provisions and a major defense authorization bill. The Senate also approved scores of administration nominations before adjourning.

The 111 bills passed in the lame duck session accounted for more than a third of the 113th Congress’ entire legislative output.

The spur in action may have also reflected the desire of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to clear the decks of lingering budget and policy matters before their party takes control of the 114th Congress next week. According to Pew, it was simply the continuation of a trend on Capitol Hill of putting more and more business off until after the election.

In all, the outgoing 113th Congress met between 2013 and 2014 and enacted 296 laws – or 13 more than the previous Congress, according to Pew. Of those overall laws passed, Pew identified 212 as “substantive,” meaning something other than renaming government buildings, issuing commemorative coins or awarding a gold medal to golf legend Jack Nicklaus. 

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Congressional Productivity

That total number of important or semi-important laws amounted to four more than the number racked up by the previous Congress. 

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