It’s become apparent that President-elect Joe Biden will have his work cut out for him if the U.S. Senate remains in Republican control next year. Whether it’s obstructing the most ambitious aspects of Biden’s agenda or striking down his preferred judicial appointments, a GOP-held chamber led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is capable of impeding many of the incoming President’s best-laid plans.
Recent history shows just how little a divided government can achieve when political gridlock gets in the way. The current 116th U.S. Congress—featuring a Republican-led Senate and a Democratic-held House of Representatives—has been the least productive in at least half a century, according to GovTrack data cited by S&P Global Market Intelligence.
As of Dec. 4, the current U.S. legislature had passed only 194 bills that were then signed into law by President Trump, the fewest of any Congress recorded in GovTrack’s database going back to 1973. By comparison, the previous least-productive legislature, the 112th Congress (2011–13)—which had a Democratic-led Senate and a GOP-held House—passed 284 bills into law, 90 more than the current version has managed.
Both of those historically unproductive bodies put the 80th Congress—famously dubbed the “Do-Nothing Congress” by President Harry Truman in 1948—to shame, and speak to an era of political polarization in which bipartisan cooperation has proved increasingly rare. In recent cases in which control of Congress’s two chambers has been split between Republicans and Democrats, that schism—and the resulting political gridlock—has been on full display.
The 111th Congress (2009–11), which featured Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, united behind a newly elected President Obama to pass 385 bills into law, according to GovTrack data. But the following three sessions of Congress during the Obama administration were some of the least productive on record, as Republicans gradually increased their influence on Capitol Hill. The aforementioned 112th Congress and the following 113th Congress (296 bills passed into law) featured a GOP-controlled House, while the 114th Congress (329 bills passed) saw both chambers in Republican hands.
Republicans maintained full control of the 115th Congress, which united behind President Trump to pass 443 bills into law, before Democrats took back control of the House in the current 116th Congress.
In his time as vice president—a role that doubles as president of the U.S. Senate—Biden witnessed firsthand the gridlock that marked the final six years of the Obama administration. Some in the President-elect’s camp have touted the former senator’s long history on Capitol Hill—and his previous working relationship with McConnell—in expressing confidence that he can cooperate with congressional Republicans to advance his agenda.
Still, recent history shows that such bipartisan cooperation is easier to aspire to than actually bring to fruition, and the Trump era has only deepened the political divides that have made compromise on Capitol Hill an all-too-rare occurrence. That’s amplified the importance of the upcoming runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats, to be held on Jan. 5. If Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock manage to unseat Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, it would swing control of the Senate—and both chambers of Congress—back to the Democrats.
That would provide Biden with a united Congress far more likely to enact the most ambitious parts of his agenda. Otherwise, a Senate led by Mitch McConnell lies in wait, able—and all too likely—to thwart the President’s designs.