A productive legislature is one that does … what, exactly?
The Washington Post today argues that Congress is about to wrap up one of its least “productive” sessions in recent memory. The headline on Bob Pershing’s column reads, “In 2011, fewer bills, fewer laws and plenty of blame.”
Regardless of whether you want more or less from Capitol Hill, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.
Through Nov. 30, the House had passed 326 bills, the fewest in at least 10 non-election years, according to annual tallies in the Congressional Record. The Senate had approved 368 measures, the fewest since 1995.
By comparison, the House approved 970 bills in 2009 and 1,127 in 2007. The Senate totals for those years were 478 and 621, respectively. (Both chambers are expected to pass more bills before adjourning this month, but probably not enough to change the overall picture.)
Does filing and then passing legislation make a legislature productive? Goodness gracious, I hope not. We could easily flood the Congress or General Assembly with the bills that didn’t quite make it last year, pass an amendment requiring that they pass X number of bills every session and we could sit back and congratulate ourselves for making the lawmakers work ever so hard. But that’s not productivity. At best it’s a lot of busy work.
Implicit in Pershing’s view – and the view of many a Frankfort-er – is the idea that new laws are necessarily productive, that they have no power to destroy or hinder. Measuring productivity this way takes for granted that a thousand laws on a thousand different subjects have the same consistency of quality as a thousand new Toyota Camrys just off the line. Thinking of a legislature as productive only when they’re changing the rules under which we live is a considerable error.
I wrote earlier this year that regular legislative days in Kentucky cost more than a million dollars each. Getting more out of those millions doesn’t mean increasing the amount of legislation passed. The true measure of a value of a legislature is how carefully the members protect our liberties while performing only the essential and constitutional tasks of government. Making them do that is a task for all of us.