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I don't live in the US, but I am drowned in news from the US, even more than those from my country.

I understand that the US is a very polarized society, where one of the main stated goals of both of the major political parties in Congress, is to block whatever idea comes from the other party. As a consequence of this, most change is done only through executive orders, which can be overruled by the next president just as easily as they are enacted; through legal loopholes like embedding some rules into larger must-pass bills; and more recently, through partisan re-interpretation of existing laws by the courts.

Since there is not a large enough majority in the Senate to pass any laws, I wonder, when was the last time that actual federal laws were passed by the US Congress? And if that was recent, how commonly do laws pass in the US, and how do the different parties find agreements when they have publicly stated that not finding agreements is their platform.

Based on my understanding of US politics, I would believe that there have been no laws passed at all since at least when Obama started in 2008, but i would like to have more information about this.

I know there are some trivial bills that are routinely passed, such as renaming of stuff, and other non consequential laws. I'm not talking about these -- I'm talking about actual laws that change actual stuff.

Apologies for knowing so little about the US. I just want to learn more about that very fascinating country.

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  • Just to start with, the Affordable Care Act in 2010. There have been a number of laws of consequence passed since the start of the Obama presidency. They show up pretty frequently in the news.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 27, 2022 at 4:15
  • If you browse to legiscan you can get a full list of bills passed. Comparing the current congress with the 112th from 10 years ago, the 112th passed maybe double the number from the 117th. Current congress still has time to catch up. Large majority of both are "trivial".
    – doneal24
    Commented May 27, 2022 at 15:32
  • "one of the main stated goals of both of the major political parties in Congress, is to block whatever idea comes from the other party." While there is some truth to that it is an over simplification. There are many non contentious issues the parties can agree on (e.g. aid to Ukraine). Also, especially in the Senate, parties have much less control over their members than in many other countries so even if the Leadership disagrees some Senators will vote with the other side (e.g. Manchin, Collins).
    – deep64blue
    Commented May 28, 2022 at 22:01

2 Answers 2

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Background

While it may seem that Congress is inefficient and unproductive, it is definitely an exaggeration to say that "there have been no laws passed at all since at least when Obama started in 2008".

In each Congress, there have been bills passed that deliver on some, but not all, of the majority party's legislative priorities. Wikipedia has a list of substantial legislation passed in the last ten years.

The governing party is usually able to deliver on a few of their legislative priorities when they have a trifecta (i.e. control of the presidency, House and Senate).

Senate gridlock & reconciliation

In recent years, where a 60-votes Senate supermajority is elusive, the majority party in the Senate makes use of a process called "reconciliation" to pass some of their legislative agenda with only a simple majority (i.e. 51 votes or 50 votes + VP). However, reconciliation is only limited to bills that deal with spending and budgetary issues and hence cannot be used for every piece of legislation.

Other practical limitations include the number of times this process can be used per year, quoting from Wikipedia below:

Congress can pass up to three reconciliation bills per year, with each bill addressing the major topics of reconciliation: revenue, spending, and the federal debt limit. However, if Congress passes a reconciliation bill affecting more than one of those topics, it cannot pass another reconciliation bill later in the year affecting one of the topics addressed by the previous reconciliation bill. In practice, reconciliation bills have usually been passed once per year at most.

(emphasis mine)

Occasionally, there are bills on uncontentious issues that can garner bipartisan support, such as the recent emergency military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine or those that underwent long and complex negotiations, such as the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Examples of recent major legislation

Below are a few examples of major legislation that were considered priorities for the governing party in their campaigns.

Of course, there were also other substantial laws passed, such as the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022, the Great American Outdoors Act and many more.

Number of laws enacted each Congress since 1989

Pew Research Center has a graphic illustrating the number of laws enacted by each Congress since 1989, which evidently, disproves the notion that there had been no recent "actual federal laws were passed by the US Congress".

Image

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  • This is a very good answer. Thank you very much for the explanation. I wonder how they get to pass these laws, since I understand that nothing can pass without 60 votes in the Senate, which neither party has had for quite some time... Commented May 28, 2022 at 2:24
  • @PandaPajama I updated my answer to provide some background on the vote breakdown in the Senate. To sum up, Obama had a 60-votes supermajority earlier in his term (until the 2010 Massachusetts special Senate election) while some pieces of legislation in recent years were passed under reconciliation, meaning that only a simple majority (51 OR 50 + VP) is needed. Wikipedia page about reconciliation. The rest were bipartisan bills.
    – Panda
    Commented May 28, 2022 at 3:11
  • @PandaPajama A very important factor to understand is that american politics is highly partisan, but not totally partisan. Generally, by working some compromises into a bill, you can get enough members of the opposite party willing to let it come to a vote for a simple majority to pass it. This is untrue in cases where the heart of the bill is a central partisan issue (like gun control or abortion), but only in those very controversial cases. Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 18:00
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Sure. Of course it depends on what you mean by "significant". I guess you mean bills that create new laws, that regular people could break, not appropriation acts that spend money. So there is:

May 16th 2021: Safe Sleep for Babies Act of 2021,” which prohibits the manufacture and sale of crib bumpers or inclined sleepers for infants.

or

March 29th 2021 H.R. 55, the “Emmett Till Antilynching Act,” which makes lynching a Federal hate crime.

Are these "significant" Well the first is if you manufacture or sell crib bumpers (20 years ago, these were pretty common). The second is mostly symbolic. Lynching was already illegal, but often only under state criminal laws. A federal hate crime means that a case of lynching can be tried in Federal Court as a federal murder. This might mean that the death penalty is possible (federal murder has the potential for capital punishment, even if the murder was committed in a state that doesn't have capital punishment) and the judges, prosecutors, police can be federal, not local (there is the suggestion that local police or prosecutors might fail to investigate cases of lynchings)

Of course these are relatively uncontroversial. But they show that new crimes and laws are being created by Federal Legislation.

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    "The second is mostly symbolic (Lynching was already illegal, but often only under state criminal laws)": it's more than symbolic if a local police force or prosecutor refuses to investigate or prosecute a suspected lynching.
    – phoog
    Commented May 27, 2022 at 10:13
  • @phoog AFAICT, lynching involves murder, which already was a federal crime. From James answer, it seems that the difference is that it also automatically becomes a hatte crime, which means that even harsher penalties can be issued.
    – SJuan76
    Commented May 27, 2022 at 14:27
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    @SJuan76 most murders do not fall within the scope of federal murder statutes; they apply only to certain victims (federal employees and officers, foreign diplomats, that sort of thing) and to certain places (federal facilities, US territory that isn't part of any state, international waters, etc.). Without this law, the feds have been going after people in cases like that for violating the victim's civil rights, not for murder.
    – phoog
    Commented May 27, 2022 at 15:33
  • Looking at the examples in the other answer this looks like a thinly veiled attempt to show that only insignificant laws are passed in spite of examples that are much more impactful for a lot more people.
    – quarague
    Commented May 28, 2022 at 10:59
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    My impression was that the the OP wanted examples of legislation that created new offences. Obamacare, for example, is a massive piece of law. But it doesn't create new offenses, instead it directs the President to spend money in a certain way. These laws are different. You could actually be arrested and convicted of selling crib bumpers now. That was not previously an offence. So it is "an actual law that changes actual stuff" and not just a spending bill.
    – James K
    Commented May 28, 2022 at 11:35

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