The classic but misleading metric for a Congress is the number of laws it enacts. This Congress has been better on that score than its immediate predecessors so far. But as Congress leaves for its August recess, it is wiser to measure its value based on precisely what it has accomplished, and what aspirations lawmakers can realistically harbor based on the tone of the place today.
For example, Congress took a huge step toward opening up America's trade footprint when it approved Trade Promotion Authority earlier this summer and extended a long-running African trade agreement. Members fully expect to vote on at least one major trade deal before President Obama leaves office.
Before that, the House and Senate approved a bicameral budget for 2016. This might not seem like much, but it marks the first time Congress has actually fulfilled its budget responsibilities since Obama took office. Congress also approved the Keystone Pipeline (Obama vetoed that one), and passed a so-called "doc-fix," which had been kicked down the road for years. It also passed a bill helping the victims of human trafficking.
Looking forward, there's no question that this Congress has a considerably less toxic atmosphere than the last one. Instead of contemplating a government shutdown or a default, lawmakers are talking about what they might be able to pass.
The major difference is that the Senate's new leadership has chosen a decidedly less autocratic style. The former Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., will be remembered best for blocking amendment votes. He essentially offered the minority only two choices — accept his demands or else stop action on bills altogether. This not only blocked individual senators' contributions to the process (including Democrats who might have benefited from the opportunity to contribute), but it also became a huge source of tension between the parties. Reid's decision to trample the minority's rights by invoking the so-called "nuclear option" did not help matters, either.At Pew, Drew DeSilver provides data:
It turns out there are early hints that congressional productivity may be on an upswing, after two successive Congresses that enacted the fewest- and second-fewest laws in at least four decades. As of Aug. 5, according to the Library of Congress’THOMAS database, Congress had enacted 41 laws. We categorize 29 of them as “substantive” by our deliberately generous criteria – that is, any legislation other than renaming buildings, giving out medals, commemorating historic events and other purely ceremonial acts. At least three more substantive measures have passed both chambers and await President Obama’s signature (though more may be working their way through the Pennsylvania Avenue pipeline).
By contrast, the 112th Congress had passed just 28 pieces of legislation – 19 of them substantive – by the time its August 2011 recess rolled around, matching the level of the 104th Congress in 1995. The 113th Congress was slightly more productive, passing 31 laws (24 of them substantive) by its first August recess, which is formally known as a district (or state) work period.