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The Columbus Dispatch - Congress' Output Almost Grinds to a Halt

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Location: Washington, DC

By Jessica Wehrman

It wasn't a bill becoming law that caused Rep. Bob Gibbs to step off the floor of the House last year and proudly call his wife.

It was a vote to kill a law.

"I just voted to repeal Obamacare," the Lakeville Republican told her, referring to President Barack Obama's 2010 health-care law. 

High-school civics teachers might tell students that Congress' job is to pass laws, but in this Congress it's become increasingly clear that many lawmakers measure progress in repealing or rolling back existing laws. Gibbs concedes as much, saying it's because the government has gotten so big.

For example, in July, the House voted to roll back key provisions of the Clean Water Act. In February, it voted to roll back two Department of Education regulations, including guidelines that state officials are required to follow when operating a school. And in May, the House voted to undo the same sweeping mandatory Defense Department cuts that they had agreed to accept during last year's Budget Control Act.

That doesn't include various attempts to revoke the 2010 health-care law, which was enacted under a Democratic-majority Congress.

Congress already is on track to pass far fewer laws than in previous congresses. Congress has passed 123 public laws with fewer than six months left in the legislative calendar.

During the previous Congress, which lasted from 2009 to 2010, 383 laws were passed. And in the one before that, there were 460.

"I think, up until recently, there was a sense that the federal government could solve a lot of problems, or there was a government solution to problems, so the people who were in Congress, for the most part, all shared that belief," said Michael Gessel, a lobbyist for the Dayton Development Coalition, who notes that Congress generally tends to mirror public sentiment.

Now, he said, "not everyone in Congress believes that the best solution is the government solution."

That's certainly the case for Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who says the average American would agree that "more laws" and "expanding the tax code" aren't really in the best interest of the country.

He said during a presidential election year, it's unlikely Congress will do much. And, for the most part, Jordan is fine with that. "The truth is, when you're making a major decision, it's probably appropriate to really focus in on that," he said.

But that's challenging for those lawmakers who want to pass bills. Combine a divided Congress with a Republican House that's more interested in eliminating what it thinks are unnecessary regulations, and that makes an environment where progress often is measured by activity -- any activity -- on a bill.

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, has introduced 18 bills in the year and a half he's been in Congress. In April, he had the legislative equivalent of a hat trick -- three of his bills received congressional hearings in one week. But only two of his bills have passed the House. He also saw a third, an amendment that would provide health care for military children, accepted into the defense bill that passed the House last month. That bill is now being ironed out with a Senate version of the measure.

All three are awaiting Senate action, which is frustrating for Stivers.

"Kind of the way I think of this job, is that my job is to sell intangible ideas and convince people they're the right thing to do," Stivers said.

Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Centerville, meanwhile, rarely pushes his measures through the process where a solitary bill becomes a law. Instead, he'll introduce a bill, then attach it to larger bills. When the defense bill passed the House last month, it was loaded with Turner provisions, including one ensuring that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base maintain its core functions.

"We look for bills that are what people call "must-pass' bills,'  " he said, noting that this way was used to introduce legislation into an FAA reauthorization bill urging the Federal Aviation Administration to consider the Dayton region as a site for unmanned aerial vehicle airspace.

The bills he can't attach to larger bills tend to struggle, Turner admits.

"Because less bills are being passed, and some of my bills can't be attached to a larger bill, good ideas flounder," he said.

Even the "must-pass" bills are becoming harder to pass, however, Gessel said. He's seen both parties include "poison pills" in a bill that the other party can't accept. "That didn't happen before, or at least, not nearly on the scale it does now," he said.

If Republicans have mixed luck getting their measures through the House of Representatives, Democrats can be put more neatly into the unlucky category. With a House that is solidly Republican, the only way a Democratic lawmaker has a shot at getting a bill passed is to partner with a Republican. That's how Rep. Marcia Fudge of Cleveland got her one bill passed by the House this year -- she partnered with Stivers on a bill addressing financial derivatives.

If the House has a tough time getting bills passed, the Senate, with its bureaucratic hurdles and razor-thin majority, has an even more difficult time.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced 143 bills during this Congress, according to THOMAS, a website that tracks legislative progress. But around 50 were small tariff bills protecting items produced in Ohio -- they'll likely pass as part of a big package later this year -- eight were resolutions, and more than 40 were amendments, many of which were introduced multiple times in slightly different iterations.

In all, two of Brown's legislative measures passed the Senate -- one that required flags distributed by the federal government to be American-made and one that would allow U.S. companies and workers to petition the U.S. Department of Commerce directly to impose countervailing duties on countries that manipulate their currencies. That bill was one of the bigger bipartisan bills to pass the Senate last year.

A third bill -- a resolution renaming the Rootstown Post Office -- passed the Senate and became law. Recently, Brown, along with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, amended the Senate highway bill to include money for a proposed uranium centrifuge in southern Ohio. The final version of the bill has yet to pass.

Portman, meanwhile, sponsored 16 bills, as well as 23 amendments, according to THOMAS. Some of the amendments were versions of the same legislative proposal, rewritten slightly. Most recently, Portman had two amendments -- one aimed at combating prescription-drug abuse, the other aimed at combating synthetic drugs -- included in a recent FDA reauthorization bill, which passed the Senate in late May.

Portman, as a member of the Senate minority, also has seen most of his success occur through the amendment process.

Of the 11,059 bills introduced in the 110th Congress, which convened in 2007, only 442 became law, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks legislation. That's 4 percent.

And of those, 308 originated in the House, compared with 134 in the Senate.

Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said Congress is passing fewer bills -- but it's also passing larger, mammoth pieces of legislation that often include a potpourri of smaller, unrelated measures.

The process has evolved: If lawmakers want to get something done, they don't measure progress in a bill passed. They measure it in a provision attached to a bill that passes. Or, Wolfensberger said, they measure progress in undoing a law that they find onerous.

Republicans, he said, "are trying to pare back the government rather than building it up more."


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