Obstructionism By The Numbers

Once again we find ourselves in a war of idiocy regarding what the current POTUS running for office did do or didn’t do. As expected, anytime he failed to do something he promised he and his supporters blame it on Republican obstructionism. Just as Republicans do when it is their POTUS being called to account for his or her term.

And, as usual, the challenger’s party will point out that the incumbent’s party controlled Congress for some amount of time, so what happened then? But there are some interesting quirks in this one.

First, some will say that Obama only really had control when his Party had 60 votes in the Senate. Nevermind the fact that to pass a bill only requires 50%+1, not 60% for most things. Further, they use sleight of hand to claim that Obama only enjoyed “control” for something on the order of a month out of the two years because at one point Sen. Kennedy died leaving them with 59. What they fail to understand are the rules determining the numbers required. It isn’t 3/5ths of the Senate, but 3/5ths of the Senate present and voting.

Further, it represents an ignorance of how often the Congress (Senate+House) is actually in session, and labels Democrats voting as one as non-obstructionists but Republicans doing precisely the same things as obstructionism. More of the same idiocy: “It’s ok when my party does it and wrong when the other party does it.”

But how about some numbers? We all love numbers, right?

First, how much is Congress really in session?

Hours Spent In Session


So, we can see a clear set of patterns here. Namely, that unsurprisingly even years have fewer days in session - need to run for re-election right? We also see that 2007 and 2009 have higher hours in session than the previous odd-numbered years. I’d love to see this chart going back even further, but I only have the data for what you see. If you can provide a reliable source for prior years, let me know in the comments.

Now, one thing we should note: Elections occur in the even years, but those elected don’t go into session until the following year. So, with the regular assertion that the Democrats took majority control of Congress in 2006 they actually took it in 2007, and the Republicans took it back in 2011. Thus, to compare the time Democrats have had majority during Obama’s term you would have to look at 2009-2010. For Republican majority control during Obama’s term you’ve got 2011 and 2012.

Now 2012 isn’t complete yet, but we can expect the trend to be fairly close to recent history. Either way you slice it, the party in the White House has had more time in congressional majority control for the current occupant than the opposition party. Note than on average, an elementary school child will spend more time in class in a year than the average Senator or Representative.

So, based on time in session, the Democrats have had more majority control of Congress in Obama’s term than the Republicans. That would tend to indicate the obstructionism claims based on having control of Congress would be false. But what about how much “gets done”.

There is a lot of contention over getting things done in office. Each side has their claims. However, since the POTUS mostly just gets to sign or veto bills passed by the Congress, let us look at that.


Hours Spent In Session  

Looking at this chart we can see the laws enacted each year, and the percentage of the total introduced bills/resolutions those laws represent. If the Republicans are obstructing Congress, and therefore the POTUS, we should see a significant deviation in either laws signed by the POTUS, or vetoes. But we don’t. We do see that in even years more are signed (again, elections is my guess), and odd years fewer are.

At first glance, some will claim the chart proves the claim, as 2011, the first year Republicans had majority control, is lower than 2009. And that is true. There is a significant drop in the number of laws enacted in 2011 compared to 2009. However, there is virtually no change in the percentage of bills/resolutions introduced that were signed into laws. This means that there were concomitantly fewer bills introduced. Also, note the trend from 2003 in odd year results. It has clearly been decreasing since 2003 - every single odd-year is lower in both percentage enacted, and total enacted.

With the exception of 2004 the even years are fairly consistent, but the odd-years are decreasing. How far back does this trend go? Again, I ask that anyone with references to online sources of this data preceding 2003 please leave the links in the comments as I would love to see this going back as far as we can.

Since 2012 isn’t yet complete we only have ~1.5 years of Republican majority in Congress to look at, but what we see isn’t significantly different from the 2009 numbers - when the Democrat party had majority control. Thus, based on this data I can’t see Republican obstructionism. If we were to accept that we’d have to say the Democrats were obstructionists in 2007 with regards to Bush - the POTUS at that time.

Based on this data I don’t see support for any side’s claim of opposing party “obstructionism”. Which means what I’ve always taken the term to mean in politics may well be true - “my side isn’t getting everything they want and anyone who disagrees is just being jerks/arses/nazis/socialists/fascists/warmongers”.

As much as it may surprise people to know, winning the office of the POTUS doesn’t give you any “mandate”, and it doesn’t entitle you to just do whatever the hell you want. The POTUS is not elected by a majority of Americans (and shouldn’t be but that is another article), so any claims that a majority of Americans want something because your guy/gal got elected is hogwash. Candidates get elected by their constituents to fight for their point of view, their opinions, and their desires, not to roll over to your side because your guy/gal won the White House.

Here is an idea. Every time we hear someone calling obstructionism by the other party, how about we just imagine them as three year olds throwing a tantrum because someone else didn’t do what they wanted. It is probably more accurate. Or, how about we ask those crying obstructionism to simply agree with the opposing party when they don’t have the White House, since they surely wouldn’t want to be a bunch of hypocrites, right?


Bill Anderson avatar
About Bill Anderson
Just your frendly neighborhood curmudgeon!