Congress, Deadlines, and (Lack of) Productivity

Congress, Deadlines, and (Lack of) Productivity by Laura Stack #productivityI was interviewed today for a piece on Marketplace, the public radio business and economics program, based in the show’s Washington bureau. I got so fired up I decided to write it down and get your take. I was asked about all of the deadlines Congress faces after the Thanksgiving holiday (to come up with a budget, to avoid “sequestration,” to pass a funding bill, and to raise the debt limit, etc.), given that legislators have already missed or extended many previously. I was asked to comment on the Congress’ productivity and what they can learn from a “productivity expert.”

Okay, so first they would have to learn how to be productive. What is productivity? A ratio of input to output. This Congress is the most unproductive in history. If you take the number of days congress has been in session (which is actually higher this year than most years), divided by the number of laws passed (which is much lower than average), as an expressed ratio, one would say this Congress has extremely low productivity.

In fact, in 2013, Congress will beat its own record low of productivity, passing fewer laws than at any point in the past 66 years (since data collection first began in 1947). The 2011-2012 Congress scored the least productive two-year legislating period on record. According to official legislative statistics, 52 laws have been enacted through early November 2013. To give you a sense of how low this is, the 1956 Congress passed 638 laws.

Now that said, my husband enjoys political discussions far more than I do. I try to focus on business. I’d say not passing bills isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many Americans think we have too many laws anyway. If one party is trying to pass a bill and it fails, perhaps that’s productive, since one party can’t unilaterally push their agenda on the country. However, if the political fallout affects America with parks closing and people furloughed, then it becomes problematic. Anyway, that’s political, isn’t it? So let’s get back to the question at hand, which is always, “So what do we do about it?”

Glad you asked. In my newest book, Execution IS the Strategy (Berrett-Koehler, March 2014), I discuss four key factors that must to be present for leadership to get things done, what I call the L-E-A-D Formula™:

L = Leverage: Are you strong enough as a leader, and do you have the right people and drivers in place to achieve your strategic priorities? If not, then you have a talent/resource issue.

E = Environment: Do you have the organizational atmosphere, practices, and unwritten ground rules to allow your employees to easily support your strategic priorities? If not, you have a cultural/engagement issue.

A = Alignment: Do your team members’ daily activities move them toward the accomplishment of the organization’s ultimate goals? If not, then you have a communication/productivity issue.

D = Drive: Are your organization’s leaders, teams, and employees nimble enough to move quickly once the first three keys are in place? If not, you have a speed/agility issue.

Let’s break down why Congress is having a breakdown:

  1. Leverage: The “team” is not moving in the right direction. The House & Senate are supposedly equal partners (although some would argue the Senate is more powerful), because most legislation (with a few exceptions) can’t be enacted without the consent of both chambers. We are an extremely divided country and government, so we’re having difficulty finding common ground on this team with a GOP-lead House and Democrat-run Senate. As a result of the team going in different directions, nothing can get done, so the legislative to-do list piles up.
  2. Environment: It’s become a cultural issue to deal with the easiest issue first. Congress simply doesn’t know how to prioritize correctly. Why are so few bills passed? Because of the hostile environment that creates loggerheads, it’s tempting to address the easy things to try to feel “busy.” You’re supposed to put the most critical issues first. In a corporate meeting, the first item on the agenda is the elephant in the room, not the last. The president has signed legislation to specify the size of commemorative coins for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he named a subsection of IRS code after former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. However, Congress still hasn’t finalized items like…oh…the immigration bill, the farm bill, the confirmation of the new Fed chair, the Pentagon bill, and the budget. Sources say with the ceremonial measures excluded, Congress has enacted just 44 “substantive” laws so far this year.
  3. Alignment: Congress isn’t structured for success. There is no alignment with their chambers’ schedules and the goals. After Thanksgiving, each chamber is scheduled to be in session for two weeks and then break for the holiday season. Makes sense that should be the same time, correct? NO! Rather than syncing up schedules, the House starts Dec. 2 and adjourns for the year on Dec. 13, and the Senate returns from Thanksgiving break on Dec. 9, with Dec. 20 as a stop date. Guess what that leaves? FOUR DAYS mid-December for in-person negotiations among top congressional leaders. Huh? And the most pressing item on the legislative agenda is a Dec. 13 budget deadline to reach an agreement on for spending levels through Sept. 2014? You may join me in having very little hope that the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees will reach a pact in four days. And once again, we hit the snooze button, and we’re going to have another fiscal confrontation when government funding runs out Jan. 15.
  4. Drive: Congress has no sense of urgency. One deadline passes, something is figured out as a stop-gap measure, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and puts up their proverbial feet. Instead, they need a coach with a megaphone shouting in their ear, “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!” Basic backward planning isn’t being practiced here. If you promise your wife you’ll be home for dinner by 6:30, you have to think about how long it will take you to drive home, so you need to be out of the office by 5:30, you’ll need to meet with your manager at 5:00, so you should finish the report by 4:30, etc. So if they know they had a deadline, they should have been working backward to figure it out. In corporate America, when there’s have a huge project deadline, you change your schedule. You don’t say, “Oh, I think I’ll go on vacation for two weeks.” You only get one day off for vacation. You stay later. You work harder. You do what you have to do.

I would love for Congress to place the utmost importance on doing what needs to be done for the American people. And I must say, I should send every member of Congress my new book, Execution IS the Strategy, when it hits bookstores in March. But they won’t have time to read it.



  1. Brenna Yaekle says:

    Wow Laura,
    I think we should all send this to our respective Congress members!