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Shadan Kapri/MEDILL

The owners of Saville Flowers in the 9th District had been hoping the 112th Congress would be more productive -- and pass tax relief.


Some 9th District voters frustrated over Congressional inaction

by Shadan Kapri
Oct 18, 2012


Shadan Kapri/MEDILL

Number of laws enacted by Congress. Click on image to see full-size chart.

Donna Burton’s grandfather started Saville Flowers almost 70 years ago.  She and her sister, Gail Jones, now own and operate the Evanston shop. Since the economy crashed in 2008, their small business has grown smaller: the two sisters used to employ five extra workers, but "now it’s just down to two of us,” Burton said.

There are plenty of applicants. "Almost every week up to 20 people come by looking for work,” the business owner said. “In the thirty-four years I have worked here, I have never seen so many people looking for a job.”

If Congress passed more tax breaks to help small businesses, Burton said, “then we could potentially start hiring people again.” The shop’s federal and state tax burden climbed by 21 percent over the past three years. 

Yet Congress didn’t get around to enacting any such relief, and that’s a problem for “small businesses like ours,” said Burton. 

Burton is not the only 9th District resident unhappy with what they see as a do-nothing Congress. And the numbers appear to back them up. Thanks to deep-rooted partisan divisions, the 112th session of Congress is on track to pass the lowest number of bills in the past six decades.  According to Congressional records, the current Congress – which was seated in January of 2011 and has about six weeks left to run – has to date enacted 173 bills, compared with a total of 383 passed by the 111th Congress. In the early 1990s, by comparison, the 103rd Congress passed a total of 465 laws.

The current Congress, which adjourned on Sept. 22 –- early by historical standards –- is slated to return on Nov. 13, and members will be under pressure to pass measures ranging from the massive farm bill to a normally routine reauthorization of funding for programs that help women who have been the victim of violence.

Given voters’ frustration with Congress’s lack of action, the topic has become a front-burner issue in the current race for the 9th District which pits long-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Chicago) against Republican Tim Wolfe.

The Democratic incumbent has frequently blamed Republicans for the standoff. In a speech on the House floor, she accused Republicans of stalling legislation and “sabotaging every effort to actually help create jobs and make it in America.” 

Challenger Wolfe said "blaming Republicans for the problem is disingenuous.” If certain bills are not passing, he said, "it’s not one party’s fault.” Wolfe also said that looking at the raw number of laws passed by the House and Senate is "not an efficient measure of productivity for Congress." The candidate said Congress’s lack of honesty with voters and limited transparency is one of the many reasons he is running for office.

Others also question whether a simple count of bills passed offers a good performance yardstick. Ninth District resident Dan Sullivan, a former executive director of Resources for Living, an Evanston organization that finds jobs for veterans and people with disabilities, said that during his 30-year career he has seen laws passed by Congress that halted economic growth by over-regulating the private sector.

“It’s not the quantity of laws that matter, it’s the quality," he said.

There’s another reason the current Congress has turned out such a modest amount of legislation, said William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago. "Both sides are waiting for the outcome of the presidential election," he said.

"The next session of Congress beginning in January 2013 is when we could begin to see political movement in terms of enacting more pieces of landmark legislation."