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Congress wasn't very productive in 2023. Here are the 27 bills it passed

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Congress was in the news a lot this year, but mostly it was not for passing legislation. It left us wondering what they did actually manage to get signed into law. So we've called NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel, who has tracked it all. Hi, Eric.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: All right. Underneath all of the fracas about the House Speaker and George Santos and on and on, was there much legislating happening?

MCDANIEL: No, basically not. I mean, there were only 27 bills passed through both chambers in the first year of this Congress, including three crisis bills, I guess I'd call them. These are the big ones, two short-term extensions of funding to keep the government open and one to raise the U.S. government's borrowing limit - you may have heard it called the debt ceiling - essentially so the government could pay the credit card bills for the money Congress had already directed it to spend. So these are must-do stuff. But other than that, I mean, they named some Veterans Affairs clinics. They commissioned a commemorative coin for the 250th anniversary of the Marine Corps and not much else - way behind even previous years of divided government.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying not only was the number of laws passed very low, but the laws that were passed were not exactly consequential. Why was this so much less productive than other times government has been divided between the parties?

MCDANIEL: Look. I mean, there are a couple ways to look at that, right? The first is divided government. Like we said, they do less. There's a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. That means it's hard to get all three sets of relevant folks to agree.

But the problem's a lot deeper than that. I mean, in a lot of ways, the House is working the way that you'd expect it to, given the incentives that are involved. State lawmakers often draw congressional districts, the places that representatives represent, in a way that maximizes their own party's advantage. I mean, I imagine people have heard that called gerrymandering, and it helps to create a system in which just 30 of the 435 House districts really have a say in who represents them in Congress by the time the general election rolls around. Many of the other 400-whatever seats are decided by party primaries way earlier in the year, often just by the voters from that party. That means these places are set up to elect the most partisan person possible rather than lawmakers who have to win the support of lots of different kinds of people. And as you might imagine, that makes compromise and legislating really, really hard.

SHAPIRO: Well, if the system is designed to disincentivize compromise and make it unlikely that voters will punish people for being unproductive, that suggests Congress, in the years to come, is not likely to be much more productive than it's been this year.

MCDANIEL: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, voters often can't punish people because of the way these elections are decided. And it means that Congress won't change without systemic reform. There's good news, though, right? A lot of places are already trying things that can help. California uses a nonpartisan top-two primary system. That means voters pick between the top two most popular candidates no matter which party they're from. Alaska uses something called ranked-choice voting, which lets voters rank their preferences rather than just picking one person. And that helps to find consensus picks and really reduces the incentives for candidates during the election season to attack each other. There's also bigger changes on the table, like proportional representation. And I should say none of these actually require changes to the U.S. Constitution.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's hopeful that there are some possible changes and improvements in the works. In the meantime, what does 2024 look like for Congress? What is likely to pass even this divided House and Senate?

MCDANIEL: Yeah, that's all long-term stuff. In the near term, Senators are working on something that we've talked about on this show before, a foreign aid/national security deal. So they're looking at aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, aid to the Indo-Pacific - think Taiwan - and U.S. immigration reform. So senators have been negotiating over the holiday season, and as soon as they get back, both the House and the Senate have to deal with government funding deadlines to keep the government open. They're trying to pass 12 budget bills for a full year, actual spending. But we could see more short-term resolutions. Those deadlines are January 19 and February 2.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel. Thank you.

MCDANIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.