No, we don’t want as many new laws as possible

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The New York Times recently published an article reviewing what happened in the House of Representatives over the past 12 months, and it gives an interesting glimpse into what some people define as success in government.

Times congressional correspondent Annie Karni reported that the House held 724 votes in 2023, but only passed 27 pieces of legislation. This, apparently, is a result of the “chaos and paralysis” that gripped the House this year, and resulted in a chamber where “lawmakers did more voting but less lawmaking than at any time in the past decade.”

While we all heard about the dysfunction in the Republican caucus that resulted from the struggle over the speakership – both in January and then again in October – that’s not really the interesting part of the story. What’s interesting is that this, a supposedly straight news story, manages to smuggle in the opiniated premise that more laws passed would have been better, and that presumably a House and a Congress that passed the largest number of new laws would have been the best and most productive.

Needless to say, that’s a rather loaded assumption.

Unless new legislation involves reforming, defunding, and abolishing existing programs, I would prefer that the number of new laws passed be zero. Or, to take a page from the climate activist lexicon, at least “net zero.” Karni does acknowledge this perspective, writing that “The mismatch between the number of votes taken and the number of laws passed is something far-right House Republicans might consider a win.”

Well, I’m not a far-right House Republican, but I certainly consider it a win. Virtually every new law that Congress passes ends up costing taxpayer money, limiting our freedom, and growing the power of the state (some laws more than others). Anything that adds to that burden needs to be carefully considered and meet an extremely high bar of necessity. Having lots of votes but few instances of passage is exactly how the House should function, and should always have functioned.

If anything, the ratio of policymaking to laws enacted we should be considering is my colleague Wayne Crews’ “Unconstitutionality Index,” the ratio of new laws to new executive agency rules being issued. As Wayne explains, “There are a few dozen laws enacted every year by Congress. But cabinet departments and uncountable agencies and commissions issue over 3,000 rules and regulations every year.”

Ideally we would see both of those numbers as low as possible. But if we are going to be saddled with expensive new legal requirements, they should at least have some democratic legitimacy and be approved of by Congress, as legislation like the REINS Act has proposed.

Moreover, focusing only on floor votes versus the final passage of bills obviously ignores the other, equally important, aspect of the job of a member of Congress – oversight of federal agencies and departments. I would much rather have members of the House in committee hearings, grilling agency heads about the regulations they’re promulgating, rather than bulking up the US Code and placing ever more burdensome requirements on the backs of US citizens.

Cheerleading for more new laws without any consideration of whether those proposed laws are actually good seems like an odd way to judge how either house of Congress is doing its job.