‘Do-nothing’ Congress? More like ‘wasted-time’

Updated 1:15 PM EST, Sat December 21, 2013

Story highlights

Congress spent more time in office this year but got less done

Some Republicans argue that it's number of bad bills stopped that shows effectiveness

"It's been getting worse and worse every year," veteran Democrat says

Long-time Republican says, "I think we've been working less"

(CNN) —  

Congress set off for a two-week recess Friday, flying out of Washington under a dark cloud: the “Do-nothing” label. But that term is too easy. If you take a closer look, it turns out the better fit may be the “wasted-time” Congress.

The terms “do-nothing” and “Congress” may be so cemented together that the phrase no longer tells us much. At the moment, it may sound redundant.

In 2013, Congress spent more time at the office but got less done with it than at any time in recent history.

How much got done?

Let’s start there. There are many measures of congressional activity, but one has sparked the “do-nothing” label: Bills passed.

• Bills passed 2013: 64

• Where does that place?: That is the lowest amount in modern history.

• What about recent years?: 148 (’12), 90 (’11), 258 ('10) and 125 ('09). The lowest figure during President George W. Bush’s term was 136, double the amount passed this year.

Lawmakers pass more blame than bills

Wait, bills passed does not mean “good” bills passed. This is true. And it is a key argument for Republicans especially.

“It’s not how many bills you pass,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, told CNN, “It’s how many you stop. A lot of them are bad.”

This is what we’re getting at here by bucking the “do-nothing” label. It does not capture the extent of the problem in Congress.

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How else can you measure the mess on Capitol Hill?

By the hundreds of hours it took Congress to get so little done.

Days in session? We could look at the days in session, which were officially more than 150 for both the House and Senate. That is average for the Senate and way above average for the House.

But those figures can be misleading: They include “pro-forma” sessions when the House and Senate are not really in Washington.

Instead, consider time in session

Senate time in session: More than 1,098 hours.

House time in session: More than 786 hours. .

Relatively: That’s higher than average for the Senate over the past 30 years. And lower than average for the House.

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And there were issues that both parties pledged to address, but left unresolved in that work time. To name a few:

• Jobs, long-term unemployment

• Immigration

• Energy policy

In other words, Congress spent hundreds of hours in Washington – far more than average for the Senate – and still was not able to address most of the biggest issues of the day.

“It’s a lot of wasted time,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, told CNN, her frustrated tone at odds with her bright holiday red sweater. ” Ridiculous… It’s exhausting… It’s been getting worse and worse every year. Exponentially. There are so many issues we could be dealing with, and we’re so discouraged.”

This is perhaps the greatest area of bipartisan agreement: Congress is in Washington, but doing less.

“I think we’ve been working less, to be honest with you,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said as he left the last Senate vote of the year.

When asked about the increased hours in the Senate, he was quick to respond, “The number of hours doing nothing? Yes, absolutely.”

There is a pervasive sense of frustration mixed with no clear path toward a better, more able Congress.

“I think a majority of the members are trying… and hope that getting back to where the Congress does its job is just right around the next corner,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who previously served as the Republican whip in the House. He lowered is voice. “And we keep turning that corner and finding out we’re not there yet. And that’s frustrating.”

It is a combination of doing relatively little, but taking an enormous amount of time doing it.

“A lot of wasted time to me,” Boxer repeated.

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