For House Republicans, the first year of their new majority was a lesson in humility, plagued by infighting, historic expulsions and dashed exceptions.
Don’t just count the nearly four weeks without an elected Speaker and the public bickering. The internal dysfunction is also reflected in the key metrics. Just 31 pieces of legislation became law in 2023, the lowest number in the modern era, going back more than 50 years.
Even some Republicans acknowledge that the internal discord and low productivity are intrinsically linked.
“Part of that has to do just with the condition that the House is in,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said of the low number of bills signed into law. “The House is, really, on the edge all the time — that’s made it difficult to actually pass laws and get them out.”
“That’s not always a bad thing,” Rounds added. “But, you know, you’ve had two Speakers. They’ve been embroiled in their investigations. And it’s one of the reasons why things such as the passage of the NDAA [annual defense bill] can get bogged down, just because members who have a real desire to pass legislation recognize it is one of the few vehicles that’s actually moving.”
Divided government and a slim House GOP majority had always meant that finding bipartisan consensus in lawmaking would be difficult. But the number of bills passed is significantly lower than other periods of divided government, with those structural issues further exacerbated by GOP infighting.
Conservative House Republicans started the year insisting on passing all 12 regular appropriations bills individually, rather than resorting to a massive omnibus spending bill as had become the norm.
But disputes about spending levels and policy riders led to Democrats refusing to support those bills — and Republicans repeatedly blocking several of them from passage.
After that, major pieces of legislation signed into law this year include a debt limit increase bill that infuriated the right wing and two “clean” short-term extensions of government funding, which also aggravated conservatives. President Biden also signed the annual defense authorization bill, which came with major disputes about socially conservative policies and short-term extension of Section 702 spy authorities in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of those hardline conservatives at the center of pushing for lower spending levels and socially conservative policies, vented his frustrations about Republicans not delivering enough in a fiery floor speech in November — arguing that lack of results had to do with a lack of will among Republicans.
“One thing! I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing ― one! ― that I can go campaign on and say we did,” he said. “One! Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me, one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, ‘Well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.’”
Another metric further reflects how bitterness and the politics of revenge has overtaken the chamber. The House formally censured three Democratic members of Congress this year, marking the highest number of censures in a year since 1870 when three members were censured for selling military academy appointments, according to the House historian’s office.
And those punitive measures were overshadowed by two others: the historic ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) by rebellious conservatives, and the expulsion of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) after just 11 months in office.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a close ally of the former Speaker, said that the ouster of McCarthy led to bad policy outcomes for Republicans.
“What happened by a small group of Republicans this year put us behind for what I want to effectuate is in public policy — for conservative policy outcomes,” McHenry said. “We’re worse off for eight Republicans voting with all the Democrats to oust the most effective Republican Speaker we’ve had in a long time.”
The low number of enacted laws has become an attack line for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the campaign arm for the House Democrats.
“Censure. Expulsion. Impeachment. Resignation. These are the only things MAGA Republicans seem to care about, anything but delivering on the issues that matter most. That’s why this Republican-led House has the unfortunate distinction of being the most inefficient and least productive since the Great Depression,” said a DCCC memo distributed publicly earlier this month.
Some House Republicans have rejected the idea that the small number of legislative victories is a reflection of a dysfunctional GOP majority, noting that the lower chamber has passed a host of Republican bills that Democratic leaders in the Senate have simply declined to consider, including an immigration overhaul and a massive energy policy bill.
While the House GOP is struggling to pass its last five appropriations bills, many House Republicans often flaunt how they have outpaced the Senate.
“I don’t serve in the House, but I don’t think the Senate has been nearly as productive as it could have been,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a press conference when asked about the small number of bills signed into law. “For example, we had a lot of floor time here the last couple months we could have been processing appropriation bills to get us in a better position to finish funding the government sooner.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator and chairman of the House Rules Committee, argued that Republicans notched a win simply by preventing Biden from moving his legislative wish-list through Congress, as he had in his first two years when Democrats controlled both chambers.
“There were a lot of victories. There were a lot of things that didn’t happen that would have happened absent this majority,” he said. “So we’ve been able to stop a lot of the spending. … But again, when you control one House by margins like this, your victories are usually what you keep from happening, not what you can make happen.”
Cole also pointed out that Republicans, frequently critical of the government, don’t always gauge the success of a Congress merely on the number of bills signed into law. Sometimes, he said, less is better.
“If you’re a Republican, you believe in less government, and not doing something is sometimes a good thing,” he said. “So, just because we passed a law doesn’t mean it was a good law, it doesn’t mean it has a positive effect.”
The number of bills also does not necessarily correspond to the significance of legislation passed, as some bills are packed with policy changes while others are limited to renaming buildings. One of the bills Biden signed this year directs the Treasury Secretary to mint coins commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Marine Corps.
There are no signs that agreement — within or between the parties — and lawmaking will tick up to higher historical levels in 2024.
Republicans left Washington this month sniping over government funding, foreign aid, leadership tactics and who bears the blame for their lean legislative record.
And those scuffles are set to resume when Congress returns to Washington in January facing urgent deadlines on government spending and a tough fight over emergency funding for Ukraine — two issues that have severed the GOP conference and created enormous headaches for Republican leaders hoping to unite their party against President Biden’s agenda heading into tough elections in November.
“It’s divided government in a presidential year — it’s gonna be close. I don’t see us moving a lot of big legislation,” Cole said. “I think the appropriations bills, and whatever the two sides agree should be attached to them, is probably the best you’re going to get.”
Al Weaver contributed.
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