Ignore the Numbers: Why Evaluating Congress (especially in 2020) on the Number of Bills Signed into Law Misses the Point

Charles Cooper

As trends in Congress are changing and policymakers are prioritizing communication over legislation, evaluating 2020 on the number of bills signed into law can lead to a significant misreading of Congress’ productivity.

It is that time of year again when everyone is releasing comprehensive lists that provide some overview of the year and comparison to previous years. It will be tough to compare 2020 with any other year for a variety of obvious reasons, but one thing to be wary of is the significant misread that Congress has been unproductive in 2020 – as some have already done (and many more will).
One of my favorite sources of news, Axios, has even declared that “productivity in Congress tanked in 2020” and noted that “never have things been less productive than in recent years.” Since President Truman called the 80th Congress (1947-1949) the “Do Nothing Congress,” it seems that almost every year many (including those in Congress) highlight how unproductive Congress has been. Having worked for Congress for over a decade, I find the metrics used to justify this unflattering view of Congress, especially this year, surprisingly far off the mark.
Unfortunately, when people evaluate the productivity of Congress, they almost always analyze the number of bills signed into law. There is no metric that is less revealing of congressional productivity than simply looking at the bills that reach the President’s desk. It is a fairly unsophisticated view of the legislative process. Judging Congress’ productivity on the number of bills signed into law is like evaluating Edvard Munch on the number of paintings he did in 1893, without considering the fact that he painted The Scream that year; arguably one of the most famous paintings in history that later sold for almost $120 million.
Of course, evaluating 2020 on the number of bills signed into law also ignores the reality that Congress spent the  beginning of the year on impeachment and has almost exclusively been focused on COVID response for much of the remaining time since March – a good portion of which Congress would not consider non-COVID related legislation.
This sort of analysis in 2020, for example, puts a trillion-dollar COVID relief package on a level playing field with legislation to name a post office in New York, both of which were signed into law this year. Additionally, it ignores a growing congressional trend that shows Congress packaging bills together and not necessarily considering each as “stand-alone” legislation. It also ignores the many other things Congress does that has significant impact in terms of productivity but does not actually translate to a bill being signed into law (i.e., hearings, nominations, etc.). Most importantly, declaring that “Congress had its least productive year in decades” fails to recognize that another week in Congress remains that is traditionally considered its busiest.
All that being said, here are a few examples of legislation signed into law that, when looked at with the appropriate context, highlight the historic legislative success of 2020:

  • Four COVID relief packages, which totaled roughly $3 trillion for first responders, hospitals, state and local governments, and businesses.
  • The Great American Outdoors Act, which is broadly considered one of the most consequential public lands bills since 1965 when the Land and Water Conservation Fund was created.
  • The Veterans COMPACT Act, which is a comprehensive group of mental health bills for veterans packaged together.
  • The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which was the first reform of NAFTA since it was signed 26 years ago.
  • The Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act, which made needed reforms to the popular COVID relief program targeted at small business to ensure that more small business could access funding.
  • The confirmation of 48 judicial nominations, including an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, trends in Congress are changing and policymakers are prioritizing communication over legislation (a blog for another time), but it does not take away from the reality that the only way to analyze Congress is to evaluate what was passed and the landscape in which it was passed. In other words, ignore the numbers.

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