When Legislation Means Little

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Sunlight Foundation has a report out today about legislation in the first session of the (current) 113th Congress, and there's lots of interesting stuff to dive into. I have to call foul on the focus on the number of bills introduced, though, which Sunlight describes at one point as "bills they wanted to become law."

That's too strong. Members of Congress introduce bills for all kinds of reasons, and very few of those bills begin life with anyone intending much more than a one-day press hit. Sure, there might be something of interest in all those throwaway bills anyway, but the fate of most of them tells us absolutely nothing about what Congress is really up to legislatively.

In fact, that's even true of bills that begin life with high hopes. Even bills that are enacted into law often reach the finish line not as freestanding legislation, but because they've been folded into omnibus bills. Think, for example, of the Affordable Care Act, which contained quite a few unrelated reforms to the health care and health insurance system all packed in to one megabill. Or think of some of the silly riders to the current omnibus appropriations bill; it doesn't really matter whether some of those existed as separate bills before they became minor provisions of some other bill.

It's also the case that some Members of Congress drop lots of bills to attract publicity, while others don't. Since such bills aren't necessarily evenly distributed across issue areas, it's best to be cautious about drawing too many conclusions based on the topics of introduced bills.

The number of bills introduced is nothing more than an answer to a trivia question, and the ratio between the number of bills introduced and the number passed is an arbitrary one influenced by countless factors. You can't expect to derive valuable insights from tracking changes in that ratio over time. Again, that doesn't mean one shouldn't dive into the data. Just don't expect too much from it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net