Some of Donald Trump’s supporters have signaled that they are unhappy with the rate at which the Republican Congress is enacting the president’s agenda. Matt Drudge, in a tweet that has since been deleted, wrote, “Congress hanging The Donald out to dry. Making him do everything alone! Despicable. No tax cuts, no Obamacare repeal. NOTHING.” Congressional Republicans have “found themselves on a legislative elliptical trainer,” as the more restrained New York Times put it. A passing look at the stats might seem to support that criticism: As of Thursday, Congress had passed just three bills since Trump took office. That total includes a waiver to allow James Mattis to become secretary of defense.1
Here’s the thing, though: Congress rarely passes more than a few laws in the first four weeks of a new president’s term. A look back at the last six presidents (Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama) reveals that at the same point in their terms, the average president had signed just two bills or resolutions into law, or one fewer than the number Congress has passed under Trump. Indeed, no new president in the past 40 years has signed more than three bills or resolutions through the first Feb. 16 of their first term. And in many cases, those bills and resolutions did not have major policy implications. The only one George W. Bush signed, for example, was a resolution recognizing Ronald Reagan’s 90th birthday.
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Getting legislation through Congress and signed by the president takes time. That’s especially the case for controversial laws. Obama had to wait more than a year before he was able to sign the Affordable Care Act. Clinton signed the “Family and Medical Leave Act” in his first few weeks, but George W. Bush didn’t sign his major tax cuts until June of his first year in office. This Congress and Trump may eventually fall behind the historical average for legislative activity. Congressional Republicans, perhaps distracted by Trump’s many controversies or confused by the administration’s conflicting signals on what policies it wants, may be slower to move legislation — there doesn’t appear to be any major bills slated to come out the Senate subcommittees, for example. But Trump and this Congress haven’t fallen behind the pace yet.