2023 was the least productive year for Congress in decades

Only 27 bills passed by Congress will likely be signed into law by the end of 2023.
Posted at 2:19 PM, Dec 20, 2023

There were a lot of headlines from Congress in 2023, but not usually because they passed new legislation that will help their constituents back home. In fact, this was the least productive year for Congress in decades. 

The National Defense Authorization Act will be just the 27th bill signed into law this year.

"This is actually one of the few times in history where it appears that the partisan contentious environment that we've been observing in the House and to a much lesser degree, the Senate, but this actually seems to be reflected in the scope of legislation and legislative policymaking that's happening right now," said Alan Wiseman, chair of Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Still, the House of Representatives got plenty of attention, and it started right off the bat in January when it took Rep. Kevin McCarthy a record-setting 15 ballots to become speaker of the House. McCarthy would lose that title less than nine months later when Rep. Matt Gaetz filed a motion to vacate. It led to a vote that ended with McCarthy losing his leadership job.

It took three weeks and another four ballots for members to settle on Rep. Mike Johnson from Louisiana as the next speaker.

"The job of the Speaker of the House is to serve the whole body and I will. But I have made a commitment to my colleagues here that this speaker's office is going to be known for decentralizing the power here," Johnson said just after being selected as speaker.

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Meanwhile in the Senate, Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama blocked all general and flag officer military promotions for most of the year. He was objecting to a Pentagon policy allowing service members seeking reproductive care to be reimbursed for travel costs.

"The burden is not on me to pass legislation to stop this illegal policy. The burden is on the administration. The burden is on the administration to stop breaking the law," Tuberville said on the Senate floor in June.

Tuberville dropped a vast majority of those holds in December, allowing the Senate to confirm 425 promotions at once. But the Pentagon didn't make any policy changes in exchange for the confirmation vote.

A few members landed in some legal trouble this year. Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted for allegedly accepting bribes and acting as a foreign agent. Rep. Jamaal Bowman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for pulling the fire alarm. Rep. George Santos was indicted for identity theft and embezzling campaign funds — a charge that ultimately let to his expulsion from the House.

So what was Congress' biggest accomplishment of 2023? Wiseman said avoiding a debt default in May, and then avoiding a government shutdown in the fall. But it's worth noting the government shutdown threat will return in January and February next year.