Washington Judges Congress by the Number of Laws It Passes

Philip Bump of the Washington Post, still in thrall to the labor theory of Congress’s value, declares, “The 112th Congress, you might remember, was the least productive in modern times.” That is to say, it passed fewer bills than other recent Congresses. But all is not lost!

After the first year of this 114th Congress, more bills have been enacted than in the 112th or 113th, according to data compiled by GovTrack.us. So far, the 114th is tracking more closely with the more-productive 110th and 111th.

So good news for those of you have been worrying that you didn’t have enough new laws to discover, understand, and obey. Bump’s article is full of charts and data, all organized around the theme that a good, “productive” Congress is one that produces bills.

But as I’ve written before, journalists may well believe that passing laws is a good thing, and passing more laws is a better thing. But they would do well to mark that as an opinion. Many of us think that passing more laws – that is more mandates, bans, regulations, taxes, subsidies, boondoggles, transfer programs, and proclamations – is a bad thing. In fact, given that the American people pondered the “least productive Congress ever” twice, and twice kept the government divided between the two parties, it just might be that most Americans are fine with a Congress that passes fewer laws.

Is a judge “less productive” if he imprisons fewer people? Is a policeman less productive if he arrests fewer people? Government involves force, and I would argue that less force in human relationships is a good thing. Indeed I would argue that a society that uses less force is a more civilized society. So maybe we should call the 112th and 113th Congresses the most civilized Congresses since World War II (the period of time actually covered by the claim “least productive ever”), and the first session of the 114th Congress slightly less civilized.

As before, I wonder if congressional reporters would applaud the productivity of such Congresses as

The 31st Congress, which passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850

The 5th Congress, which passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798

The 21st Congress, which passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830

The 77th Congress, which passed Public Law 503, codifying President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian Americans, in 1942

The 65th Congress, which passed the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition), the Espionage Act, and the Selective Service Act, and entered World War I, all in 1917

And hey, fans of legislation: If you’re really disconsolate over the passage of barely more than 100 new federal laws a year, take heart: According to my former colleague Ryan Young, now with the Competititive Enterprise Institute, federal regulators are on pace for the most pages in the Federal Register in a single year. They’ll need a strong final week, but Ryan thinks they can break the old record of 81,405 pages of new regulations. Will the Washington Post hail the regulators’ “productive” year? How about the Americans who have to comply with those regulations?