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Washington Post Fact Checker Gives Harry Reid Three Pinocchios for Claim that Current Senate is “the most unproductive” in U.S. History

three pinocchios [1]

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) took a shot at the Republican-led chamber by calling it the “most unproductive Senate in the history of the country,” and said he had the facts and figures to prove it:

“One of the newspapers here has a Pinocchio check, and they look at the facts and analyze them and then they can give up to four Pinocchios meaning people simply didn’t tell the truth….So, this is the most unproductive Senate in the history of the country, and there are facts and figures to show that. So we’re not going to be rewarding Pinocchios here based on the statements of my friend, the Republican leader, but everyone should understand there are different ways of presenting the facts.”

—Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), remarks on the Senate floor, Dec. 2, 2015

Reid’s mention of the Pinocchio scale caught Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler’s eye, so he decided to take a closer look at Reid’s statement to see if it was true.

The Facts

It turns out that Reid’s staff only had data going back to 1987, drawn from a report by the Congressional Research Service. The notion that this is the worst Senate in U.S. history was apparently the result of overenthusiastic, extemporaneous speaking. We try not to play gotcha at the Fact Checker, but it’s hard to see how just 28 years of data can be so easily stretched to two centuries, unless you’re Donald Trump [2].

Nevertheless, let’s look at the evidence. Reid is focused on two facts—number of bills passed and number of nominations confirmed. Those are supposedly the “products produced over time” by the Senate. His staff asked the CRS to compare those metrics for the first year of each Senate, up to Dec. 5. The details are in the graphic below.

Harry Reid measure of Senate productivity

The first thing you see is that McConnell already has improved on the last three Senates in terms of bills passed. As of Dec. 5, the 114th Senate has passed 157 bills, compared to 99 in the 113th, 112 in 112th and 156 in 111th (when Reid had a filibuster-proof majority.)

But in term of confirmations, the McConnell Senate certainly lags. As of Dec. 5, confirmations have totaled 136 (though another three took place on Dec. 7), compared to 213 for the 113th, 279 in the 112th and 426 in the 111th (the start of Obama’s first term). So that’s a total of 293 for the 114th Congress, slightly lower than 312 for the 113th Congress—and well below the average of 569 over this time period.

But experts we consulted were not impressed by Reid’s combined metric. First of all, it treats every bill equally, when they says it’s silly to equate huge pieces of legislation that change the course of the economy with a run-of-the-mill renaming of a post office. As for confirmations, a lot depends on how many nominees are submitted by an administration—and we are in final two years of President Obama’s term.

The overall conclusion of these experts is that there is no good measure of productivity for the Senate. In fact, many Americans feel that the less that Congress does the better.

The Pinocchio Test

Reid may have a point on the slow percentage of nominations confirmed in the current Senate, but his counting of bills as “productivity” is pretty nonsensical. It’s really not valid to treat all legislation as one-size-fits-all sausage. So jumbling together bills and nominations as a single figure is even less logical, according to the experts we consulted.

On balance, we’d say his claim would be worthy of Two Pinocchios—but then Reid gets another Pinocchio for asserting this is the “most unproductive” Congress in U.S. history. That’s a pretty extreme statement, given there are other metrics that indicate this Senate is operating at a better or faster pace than the last Senate when Reid’s party headed the majority. Reid needs to be more careful with his rhetoric.

Three Pinocchios

Sounds like sour grapes from a man who doesn’t like his job as Minority Leader.