clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 charts that prove Congress really is getting worse

Protesters demonstrate outside the Capitol
Protesters demonstrate outside the Capitol
Tish Wells/MCT via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

It's conventional wisdom now Congress has become pretty dysfunctional. But people have always complained about Congress. "If con is the opposite of pro," goes the old joke, "is Congress the opposite of progress?"

But the evidence is stacking up: Congress really is getting worse. And, at the same time, it's getting more expensive. These charts tell the tale.

1) According to a new paper, gridlock is rising


new paper by Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution finds that gridlock has been on a consistent upward trend for the past 50 years, and is still increasing.

The number of bills Congress passes can be a misleading indicator of how much Congress gets done, as a whole lot of law can end up in a single, multi-thousand page package. So Binder developed a clever test: she checked whether an issue was mentioned in the New York Times editorial page, and then whether Congress passed any legislation on that issue that year. This was meant to go beyond regular statistics about how many bills become law and get information about whether Congress acts on issues of importance. She found that, increasingly, they don't — and the 2011-2012 Congress was "the most gridlocked in the postwar era." The numbers aren't yet in on the 2013-2014 Congress, but there's little reason to believe they've improved.

2) Congress is horribly unpopular


This chart, from Gallup, is self-explanatory. Congress's approval rarely managed to climb above 20 percent in the past 4 years. Its recent approval ratings are the lowest on record. Practically anything polled manages to get a higher approval than Congress. That includes traffic jams, lice, and Nickelback.

3) Congress is more polarized than it's been in over 100 years


According to political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, party polarization in Congress is at a modern-day high. This polarization makes it more difficult for members from different parties to collaborate on important issues. Read our card on the issue, or head over to the VoteView site for more. The bottom line, though, is if you think the two parties in Congress seem further apart than ever — you're right.

4) This Congress is the least productive in the postwar era


Out of over 7,000 bills and joint resolutions introduced during this Congress, only 107 have become law so far — fewer, by this point, than in any other Congress since at least the 1970s. And last year's Congress already had the lowest number of new laws in modern times. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has some smart thoughts on this data here.

5) Yet Congressional elections are more expensive than ever


Spending on Congressional elections — which includes money spent by the candidates themselves, PACs, and outside groups, as totaled by the Center for Responsive Politics — reached an unprecedented $3.6 billion in 2010, and a similar number in 2012. And already, it's starting to look like the 2014 midterms will set a new record.

So this Congress is among the most gridlocked, least popular, most polarized and least productive ever. Oh, and it's also the most expensive on record. Apart from that, though, things are going great.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.