WASHINGTON — With time running out on the 113th Congress, lawmakers looked at the mountain of bills yet to be considered and decided to pile on despite the gridlock that has them on course to being the least productive Congress in history.
Nearly 300 bills were introduced in the week before lawmakers started their summer recess, raising the total filed to 8,176. Sen. Mark Pryor filed the most last week — introducing five bills that are part of an American Made Strong initiative he is touting across Arkansas as the two-term Democrat campaigns for re-election.
Historically, only a handful of bills become law that are introduced at this time in the legislative calendar. The odds for success this year are likely slimmer still. The 113th Congress has enacted 145 laws since opening on Jan. 3, 2013, a slower pace than the 112th Congress that currently holds the title as the least productive Congress in history.
So, why the quixotic behavior?
Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University, says lawmakers aren’t just looking to make laws when they introduce bills.
“Almost all of these bills have little chance of passage but lawmakers introduce bills for many reasons — including taking positions and signaling to constituents and organized interests their concerns about an issue or problem,” she said. “And, of course it doesn’t hurt to have dropped these bills into the hopper right before lawmakers headed home to their districts for the August recess.”
Richard Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said that the rush to introduce bills before the summer break is part of the political theater of the modern campaign. While the legislation isn’t necessarily going anywhere, the lawmakers can go around their districts and tell voters that they have sponsored legislation to address their concerns.
“It is a classic ploy to show voters that they are working on behalf of the people,” Hanley said. “They can say, ‘I put in this bill’ and deflect any blame for inaction on their colleagues in Congress. It gives them something to populate a campaign ad or to stand in front of a factory and say, ‘I’ve introduced this bill’ — even if it has no prayer of becoming law.”
Lisa Ackerman, a spokeswoman for Pryor, said that the America Made Strong legislation is part of an ongoing focus the senator has had to create jobs and improve the economy in Arkansas.
“He and staff have been working on it for a while, but kept getting good feedback from Arkansas businesses, so the package kept growing and was delayed as details were fleshed out,” she said.
Pryor has asked for Senate floor time to take up the legislation but that has not been secured at this time. Otherwise, he is looking at options to move pieces of the initiative through amendments to other legislation that comes to the floor. The Senate is expected to take up a bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which would be a likely candidate for amendments, Ackerman said.
There is also an opportunity to get legislation approved without floor debate through “unanimous consent,” so long as no Senator objects. The parliamentary maneuver is generally reserved for non-controversial items. Ackerman said that his bill to create a voluntary America Star label to easily identify to consumers products that are made in America could fall into that category.
Congress will return to session for two weeks in September before breaking again until after the mid-term elections. They’ll then have a lame-duck session before adjourning for good by the end of the year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has already mapped out much of the work for September — and alerted colleagues that they should expect to be working the weekends to get through it all. They have to approve appropriations for the next fiscal year, reauthorize the export-import bank, extend an a prohibition on taxing Internet access and approve a defense authorization bill. They may also revisit efforts to reform student loans, increase the federal minimum wage and respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, he said.
“We have so much to do and so little time to do it,” Reid said. “We have not had a productive Congress. We can’t push everything to a so-called lame duck.”
No one else in the Arkansas delegation introduced legislation last week. But, most indicated that they may do so when they return from the August recess.
“I’m looking at introducing more legislation,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, who is now running for lieutenant governor rather than re-election in Congress.
Griffin said that issues that Congress should address are cropping up as he visits with constituents in Arkansas. In particular, he said that most federal funding for higher education is focused on four-year colleges — leaving technical colleges and trade schools without access to many federal grants or loan programs.
Griffin also defended lawmakers who file bills late in a session even if they have a slim chance of immediately becoming law.
“The idea that you don’t introduce a bill unless you think it will become law is not a good idea,” he said. “It’s much easier to communicate when you have something formal on paper. Otherwise, it’s just talking in the abstract. With specifics on paper, then you have a way forward.”
The five bills that Pryor introduced are:
S. 2690: A bill that would establish an American Star label program that would help consumers identify products manufactured in the United States, similar to the Energy Star program used to identify energy efficient appliances.
S. 2681: A bill to revise tax laws to encourage businesses to keep jobs in the United States.
S. 2682: A bill to require some federal agencies to use construction materials (such as cement, wood and steel) that are produced in the United States.
S. 2729 A bill to require an economic analysis of any proposed rules for protecting habitat of endangered species.
And, S. 2735 A bill to extend the prohibition on taxing access to the Internet or electronic mail.