The Utah legislature passes far more bills than Congress

We should expect fewer laws out of the Utah legislature than out of Congress, yet we see the opposite.

As I prepped some lecture data for my Congress course today, I was surprised at something I hadn’t noticed before: Congress passes far fewer laws than the Utah legislature.

I did a double take. How could it be? Utah’s legislators meet for only 45 days, but Congress meets year-round. Utah legislators govern a small state of only 2-3 million, home to 0.9% of the country’s population, but Congress governs a large nation of over 300 million residents. Utah’s legislature has only 104 members pushing their projects, but Congress has 535 legislators pushing their personal projects.

What do we see? Utah has less time to write laws, a smaller population to govern, and fewer legislators pushing pet projects. Add to that Utah’s love of the old conservative motto: “That government is best which governs least.” Because of all this, we should expect fewer laws out of the Utah legislature than out of Congress, yet we see the opposite.

The data

Each Congress lasts two full years. We are presently witnessing the 112th Congress, spanning January 2011 through January 2013. To make things comparable, I compare all bills passed in 2009 and 2010 by the Utah legislature to all bills passed during the 111th Congress (Jan 2009 through Jan 2011) by Congress.

If you want to know more about my data, check the footnote at the end of this sentence.1

The comparison

Utah’s legislature (blue line) passes roughly twice as many bills as Congress (red line) typically does during the same time period.

Utah passed more bills during the 2011-2012 sessions than during any other two-year period in this chart. If any special sessions are held in 2012, then the total will rise. Meanwhile, there has been a downward trend in Congress since the 2003-2004 session.

Bills per capita

The difference is even more striking when we consider population. In this next chart, I’ve divided the number of bills passed by the population of Utah (in millions) and the United States as a whole (also in millions). During any given two-year period, Utah’s legislature tends to enact roughly 300 new laws for every 1 million residents. Meanwhile, Congress enacts roughly 1 or 2 for every million residents.

Bills per legislator

Here’s one more way to look at it. I’ve divided the number of bills by the number of legislators serving in each body. Utah has 104 legislators (75 in the House, 29 in the Senate) and Congress has 535 (435 in the House, 100 in the Senate).

On average, a typical Utah legislator passes 7-8 bills during any two-year period. Meanwhile, a typical member of Congress passes less than 1 during the same period.

Why the difference?

I can think offhand of two explanations for this gap.

First, we live in a federal system. I suppose that it’s possible that members of Congress are choosing to leave most legislating to the states, so they are passing fewer bills to allow states to lead on policymaking. (As I write this, I can hear a solid majority of Utah legislators laughing out loud.) I’m not sure this is the right explanation.

Second, we have a single subject rule in Utah. The state’s constitution prohibits the legislature from addressing more than one topic in a single bill. (Caveat: Utah’s courtsĀ  interpreted this rule broadly in a 2008 case.) Because Congress has no single subject rule, it’s possible that bills passed out of Congress are much, much longer and far-reaching than bills passed out of the legislature.

Unfortunately, I don’t have data on bill length handy. Still, Congressional bills would have to be roughly 10 times longer than Utah bills to explain the gap in “new bills per legislator.” Moreover, Congressional bills would have to be roughly 200 times longer than Utah bills to account for the “new bills per million residents.”

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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2 Responses to The Utah legislature passes far more bills than Congress

  1. Cody Stewart says:

    Interesting find, Adam. I think most people will be most surprised to see how few bills successfully make their way through Washington.

  2. Matt Piccolo says:

    The single subject explanation likely is true. Congress passes lots of omnibus bills. And I actually think it’s more intuitive that the more legislators there are and the more people and systems they govern the harder it would be to pass legislation. All of that likely raises the difficulty level for getting legislation passed.

    Another explanation might be that Congress has much more partisan gridlock due to its more balanced ratio of R’s and D’s, whereas Utah’s R’s can pretty much do whatever they want if they agree on an issue.

    You might also look into types of bills. Utah passes a lot of procedural or “fix it” bills that glide through the process (again, under the one subject rule so there are many). Does Congress also have lots of these bills?

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