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Just how extensive is the work of Congress? Each Congress runs for two years – and during this time, the current Congress has taken up 9,505 proposed bills for consideration. Members of the Republican Party hold a clear majority in the legislature, with 301 out of 535 seats. This is reflected in the number of bills that have been introduced: 5,058 originating from Republican lawmakers, or nearly 17 bills for each Republican official, and 4,395 from Democratic legislators – almost 19 bills per individual Democrat.
9,000-plus bills is a massive volume of legislation for any group to consider, even as their full-time job. When measured as actual pages of text to be read, this quantity is even more staggering: 110,055 pages of presented legislation have passed in front of the current Congress, about 11.6 pages per bill.
Additionally, bills proposed by Republicans tend to be lengthier on average: Republican legislators have put 62,318 pages on the table, with 46,847 originating from Democrats. This means that, on average, bills introduced by Republicans were nearly two pages longer: 12.3 pages per bill compared with 10.7 for Democrats.
These extraordinary quantities of text reveal a rarely considered inevitability of our legislature: There’s simply no way that every congressperson can take the time to read each and every bill before voting on it.
Based on estimates of typical reading speed, every lawmaker would need to devote over 229 workdays to reading this text in its entirety. Altogether, members of Congress would spend a combined 470 work years if they were to devote this much attention to the task.
Congress' actual work schedule doesn't even come close to this: The 113th Congress was scheduled to be in session for a mere 133 days a year, compared with the typical 240 days of work for most American workers.
We've seen how much legislation is nominated as a whole, but the graphic above represents a distinct measure of the bills that were actually passed by the House and Senate to become binding law.
Less than 1 in 10 proposed bills were ultimately signed. During the current Congress, 480 Republican-sponsored bills have become law (about 1.59 per Republican lawmaker) as well as 239 Democrat-sponsored bills (1.02 for each Democratic legislator). In pages of legislation, this equals 4,778 pages of laws sponsored by Republicans and a mere 1,012 from Democratic politicians.
This Republican skew, with two Republican-sponsored bills passing for every one Democrat-sponsored bill, demonstrates the ability of the current Republican majority to exercise a great degree of control over which bills will ultimately be made laws.
While this year's presidential election is at the forefront of everyone's mind, these figures reveal that the legislature and its elected officials – whose races often receive far less fanfare and attention – wield extraordinary day-to-day influence over our nation’s laws.
The number of legislators working in our Congress offers an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at which individual members are putting forth the greatest effort. While you might expect that members of Congress would be relatively balanced in their workloads, the reality is that this is far from the case.
We quantified which representatives and senators have sponsored the most legislation that has been successfully passed into law, and what we’ve found is that a small number of legislative heavyweights exert an outsized influence. How disproportionate is their success? Even among the top 25 most successful legislators, the number of pages of laws they’ve enacted can differ by a factor of nearly 22 at most.
Per this metric, by far the most influential legislator of the current Congress is Republican Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who has sponsored 887 pages of enacted legislation in all – more than 250 pages ahead of the runner-up.
While Rep. Dent may not be the most widely known member of Congress, he’s shown a willingness to reach across the aisle and strike bipartisan compromises on numerous divisive issues, and co-chairs a loose coalition of centrist Republican lawmakers known as the Tuesday Group. He previously broke with Republican ranks in advocating for a repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and opposing the federal government’s intervention in the controversial case of Terri Schiavo.
Dent’s sponsored legislation has included promoting the wider use of hydrogen fuel, regulating new synthetic drugs, encouraging preventive screening in health care, and promoting increased oversight of collegiate athletics.
Runner-up Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, however, has shown a distinctly harder edge. He’s advanced several strongly right-leaning causes, such as advocating for reduced federal spending and federal taxation, voting to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions, working to suspend the Affordable Care Act, opposing expanded background checks for firearm sales, and opposing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Sen. Johnson has sponsored 627 pages of legislation in this session that have successfully become law.
Many fascinating trends are evident from this individual analysis: The most successful legislators nevertheless show a “long tail” pattern: The top five lawmakers on this list have sponsored over 1,100 more pages of successful legislation altogether as the remaining 20 combined. By the time we reach the No. 10 most successful lawmaker by this metric, the featured Congress members have sponsored fewer than 100 pages of enacted legislation.
These figures also highlight the extent of Republican influence over laws that moved forward – 21 of the top 25 legislators by pages enacted are Republicans. Perhaps most notable is what’s missing from this list: many “big name” representatives and senators who are widely known across the country aren’t necessarily sponsoring that much successful legislation.
Only a handful of widely recognizable Congress members, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y.; former presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, R-C.A.; and Chuck Grassley, R-I.A., make this list. The vast majority of Congress’ most influential work appears to happen behind the scenes, led by a relatively small number of legislators with individually high work output.
We’ve seen which legislators have found the most success in terms of sponsored legislation that’s been passed into law – but what about the other end of this spectrum? Next, we decided to look at which Congress members were responsible for sponsoring the most legislation that did not become law. We measured this by the time it would take for all of Congress to read their failed legislation in its entirety.
What we found was that there was very little overlap between the most and least successful legislators. While we might expect that proposing a greater quantity of legislation overall might lead to an individual legislator having both more pages of successful as well as unsuccessful legislation, this was not the case.
Instead, some legislators simply show a much clearer pattern of individual success than others, and these groups can be divided into relatively distinct clusters; only three lawmakers appeared on both the lists of top 25 most and least successful sponsors of legislation.
So whose bills have been thwarted the most? Senator Thad Cochran, R-M.S., tops the list, and his sponsored legislation that ultimately did not pass would take more than nine years and two months for every member of Congress to read. The vast majority of bills sponsored by Cochran have simply been referred to committees, and very few have succeeded in becoming law.
Another intriguing pattern seen here is that this list does contain many more widely recognizable politicians. Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-A.Z., is the runner-up; his legislation that was not passed would take nearly 7.5 years for all of Congress to read. Other big names on the list include Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-U.T.; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-A.K.; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-C.A.; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-C.A.; and current presidential contender Bernie Sanders, I-V.T.
Sen. Sanders is in 20th place, and he’s the only independent to make the list. Sen. Sanders’s failed legislation would take about three years for the entire Congress to read. Overall, Democratic politicians are much more strongly represented in this list as well, taking up ten places. This again shows the difficulty they’re likely to encounter when trying to pass legislation with a Republican majority in the House and Senate.
Next, we took a closer look at individual states. We compared the bills proposed by each state’s members of Congress with the bills that ultimately pass into law. Interestingly, in no state was this rate greater than 22.2% of introduced legislation. Nevada took the top position. Currently serving as Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, D-N.V., has historically taken a strong role in spearheading a variety of legislative initiatives on topics as diverse as health care, immigration, the use of military force overseas, and ethics reform.
In terms of efficiency, 21.3 percent of legislation passed by Mississippi Congress members was signed into law. This put the state in second place. West Virginia was third with 21.2% of proposed bills becoming law.
At the other end, many states were far less efficient overall. In Iowa, a mere 6.9% of bills put forward were enacted into law. Iowa is home to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who was ranked as both the No. 20 most successful congressman but also the No. 6 biggest time-waster.
Nevertheless, in terms of day-to-day work, Grassley frequently makes his voice heard with his vote; with over 12,000 votes cast, Grassley has the No. 8 most recorded votes of any senator in history. Interestingly, Pennsylvania – home to overall most successful legislator Republican Rep. Dent – was the No. 5 least efficient state with only 7.8 percent of proposed legislation passed.
However, when legislative success and efficiency are measured in actual pages of text rather than just the number of proposed bills, a distinctly different picture emerges. We looked at which states’ Congress members are responsible for the most pages of enacted laws during the current congressional session as well as how much of this legislation originated from each party.
Pennsylvania can be seen to take an extraordinary lead here with 1,084 pages of legislation being passed – nearly 400 more than runner-up Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Dent’s influence is evident – 1,048 pages of successful legislation originating from this state’s members of Congress were sponsored by Republicans and only 36 by Democrats.
The party breakdown shows perhaps the clearest indication of the extent of Republican control over the legislature: Of the top 10 states for Congress members responsible for pages of enacted legislation, three (Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Utah) enacted exclusively Republican-sponsored laws. A further five states – Illinois, Texas, California, New York, and Washington (in addition to Pennsylvania) – were host to a Republican majority as well.
Even those states traditionally considered liberal strongholds are nevertheless host to Republican lawmakers exerting a large degree of influence over Congress. Among this list, only New Hampshire, No. 8 in the country for pages of laws enacted, showed a majority of this activity originating from Democratic legislators.
The United States Congress is a massively complex organization, and it’s subject to perennial debate over how well its people are doing their jobs. As we’ve seen, there are potentially many opportunities for members of Congress to improve their performance and better serve the citizens they represent.
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We pulled data from govtrack.us regarding every bill or resolution that has been introduced to our current Congress. To estimate reading time, a random sampling of legislature showed about 150 words per page, so given the average reading speed is 184 words per minute and legalese takes a bit longer to read and comprehend than most literature, we estimated it would take one minute per page to read the legislation.
Reading time was then allocated to eight hours per day, five days per week, and 261 days per year (if working during holidays), to reflect workdays, weeks, and years. (It should be noted that Congress is actually in session far less often than this.) The base compensation for a member of Congress is $174,000.
The Congress members with the most failed legislation were found using the assumption that every member of Congress will read each of the bills they introduced. The status of the bills on the table was current as of April 29, 2016. Some of the bills that have not yet passed might move forward by the end of the 114th Congress – and more will surely be nominated. The same goes for the status of bills proposed by state: We looked at what percentage of presented bills have been passed from each state as of April 29, 2016.