This Congress is the least active in the nation’s history. In the past two years, the body has passed only 181 bills that were signed into law by the president. Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, doesn’t rate it very highly.
“This is an embarrassing and miserable Congress, really one of the worst I've ever seen,” he says.
But how do Florida lawmakers rate? Of bills that are now laws, the state’s lawmakers were the lead sponsors of six – giving them less than three percent of the laws passed in the nation over the last two years. Ornstein says you have to dig a little deeper than that though.
“Now it’s true you can't just measure a Congress by the number of bills enacted, the quality matters, too,” Ornstein says.
Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, has his name attached to two new laws. One expands the government’s program to combat algae blooms, while the other requires the secretary of state to keep Congress updated on the recovery of Haiti after the earthquake devastated the island.
What about output? Sen. Nelson and his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Marco Rubio, both introduced more than 40 bills. South Florida Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart only introduced three.
“I don’t file a lot of bills,” Diaz-Balart readily admits.
“I learned a long time ago – frankly, when I was in the state Legislature – that the way to affect policy is really through the appropriations process,” he says. “Remember it’s the one thing that we have to do constitutionally. Those are the bills that actually have to pass; and I think if you look through the appropriations bills there you’ll see that my fingerprints are in a number of places.”
Compare Diaz-Balart’s three bills to Central Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson’s 82 bills. That’s a lot for a House member. Grayson is a proud progressive and isn’t ashamed to admit that many are messaging bills.
He offers the example of one of his newer bills. It expands Medicare to cover eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dental work.
“It’s called the Seniors Have Eyes, Ears and Teeth Act,” Grayson says. “I don’t have much hope that that’s going to pass in the next three months but I think that it represents an effort to establish an agenda for the next time we try to reform Medicare and do it in a way that, I think, people are very receptive to and really want. I think most people don’t even realize that Medicare doesn’t cover these things.”
Grayson says just looking at bills passed is a deceiving metric because even in a hyper-partisan Congress committees are somewhat functioning and including input from all over the political spectrum. Grayson says his office has learned to maneuver in congressional committees.
“We have now passed almost fifty amendments in two years, and these are important amendments,” he says. “One is a shield law for reporters and their sources to prevent reporters from being incarcerated when they refuse to reveal their sources. Another one is a fifty percent increase in bilingual housing counseling: something very important in Miami and also very important in Orlando.”
So if the metric isn’t bills passed or introduced, how should you judge your lawmakers when you go into a polling booth? The congressional scholar, Norm Ornstein, says the nation needs problem solvers.
“I believe the screen that voters ought to use is the screen of problem solving,” he says. “Do you have a lawmaker or a candidate whose major interest is coming to Washington to help solve problems that face the nation?”
Ornstein says a part of the reason gridlock is so persistent on Capitol Hill these days is voters have become as polarized as lawmakers. He says many independents skip elections and allow the two extremes to decide who represents them in Washington. So as much as you may be frustrated and want to sit out these midterms, Ornstein says, that would be a disservice to the nation.