Commentary Magazine


Topic: Limited government

Grading Congress: A Bipartisan Failure

“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

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“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

First, the obvious. Passing few laws is better than passing bad laws. Grading a Congress by how “productive” it was would be like grading a war by how many bombs were dropped. As the legislative branch, Congress should have goals. Those goals should not be numerical, and members of Congress should not be engaged in federal busywork. Yesterday, CBS’s White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted out some last-minute governing done by Congress and the president. For example, he tweeted: “By Act of Congress and Presidential Proclamation, tomorrow is Wright Brothers Day.”

According to the media’s scorecard, this Congress would have been better had it used every day of the year to make such proclamations. We wouldn’t even need a classical calendar anymore: “The president is scheduled to attend a fundraiser this coming Led Zeppelin Day, followed by a speech in Iowa on Dunkin Donuts Iced Dark Roast Blend Day.” Thanks Congress!

And though it wasn’t an act of Congress, a second proclamation was noted by Knoller: “Also by presidential proclamation, today marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.” If there is anything that so ably demonstrates the obsessive delusions of the governing class, it is that basic math now must be affirmed by presidential proclamation.

We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, legislating for its own sake. On a more serious note, bad legislation results in far worse than such proclamations. As I and others have noted, the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of police came about because he was engaged in commerce in a market created by the government’s nanny-state regulations run amok. (As James Taranto points out, while liberals initially scoffed at this plain truth it appears Mayor Bill de Blasio “implicitly” acknowledges it.)

Another example: studies show mandatory calorie counts in restaurants are ineffective in changing eating habits, but Reason magazine this week drew attention to “the deleterious effect of this mandate on the estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, and Hudson, 2011). For those working toward recovery, this policy impedes a foundational part of their efforts.”

The government’s “just do something” instincts often take the form of experimenting on the citizenry. They usually turn out to be bad laws, poorly conceived and detrimental to the people. But they stay on the books. We don’t need a Congress that believes it has a responsibility to legislate as an end in itself.

However: a total lack of legislating can have deleterious effects on the effort to keep government limited and transparent as well. As the Economist noted last year in an article on the wordiness and complexity of modern laws:

As the number of new laws has fallen, their average length has increased (see chart). Because relatively few bills pass, a congressman with a proposal will often try to hitch it to an unrelated must-pass bill. When 500 lawmakers do this at once, the result is laws that make “War and Peace” look like a haiku. …

If longer bills were merely a byproduct of cleaner government, that would be a reason to celebrate. But they also reflect a more open form of corruption. Complex systems reward those who know how to navigate them. Over the past decade, Washington has added more households whose income puts them in the top 1% than any other city in America. Many of them made money from government contracting in the defence and security boom the (sic) followed September 11th 2001. But plenty made their money lobbying to slip clauses that benefit their clients into mega-bills that no one can be bothered to read. Long laws suit them rather well.

The Economist puts some of the blame on the anti-earmark crusade, which removed one tool for lawmakers to corral votes, especially from those on the other side of the aisle. But even aside from that issue and the one of lobbying, it remains a fact that–as conservatives rightly point out–there are very few “must-pass” bills.

This is one way to create a Cromnibus. Shoving a year’s worth of legislating into one bill isn’t limited government. It’s binge governing. Liberals are wrong to assume that the number of bills passed by a Congress tells you how valuable that Congress has been. But conservatives make a similar mistake. A year’s worth of legislating is a year’s worth of legislating, no matter how you slice it. And if you’re going to do such an amount of lawmaking, it’s far better to do so in pieces, when there is transparency and debate on what is actually being voted on.

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GOP Strife? Hardly!

Fred Barnes notes that Scott Brown’s victory exploded “the fable about a death struggle pitting tea party populists and angry conservatives against moderates and the Republican hierarchy.” Brown — like Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie — succeeded in a state that went for Obama in 2008 by snatching those voters in the middle of the political spectrum and energizing his own base. The notion that this was an impossible task and that these groups were somehow in opposition to one another was spin propagated by liberals looking for solace and by snooty Beltway pundits who disparaged the tea-party populists with little understanding of their actual concerns.

What brought all these groups together? Limited government, economic conservatism, and antipathy toward backroom special-interest deal making. Rather than a conflict, there is remarkable convergence among these groups. Back in April 2009, tea-party protesters were inveighing against the stimulus plan, excess spending, and the prospect of government-run health care. There was nothing then, and nothing now, antithetical to the message that the GOP leadership has been putting forth. Recall that there was not a single GOP House vote for the stimulus plan and that no Republican senators — not even the accommodating senators from Maine — could be induced to vote for ObamaCare. In Obamaism they have found common cause and reason to put aside other topics (e.g., immigration, social issues) on which there is far less agreement.

The fable of Republican divisiveness was a convenient narrative for pundits who aimed to chase out challengers from primaries (e.g., Marco Rubio) or convince themselves that the Republicans couldn’t really seize the initiative. Those divisions on the Right (otherwise known as healthy primary competition to find the best candidates) are slight compared to the food fight that has broken out on the Left. There Democrats and their blog cheerleaders-turned-vicious-critics are forming the circular firing squad, arguing over whether to dump health care altogether, and trying to figure out how to restyle themselves as populists. (Mostly by condescendingly acknowledging that there are “angry” people out there, it seems.) You can see why they’d rather concoct a tale of Republican strife.

Fred Barnes notes that Scott Brown’s victory exploded “the fable about a death struggle pitting tea party populists and angry conservatives against moderates and the Republican hierarchy.” Brown — like Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie — succeeded in a state that went for Obama in 2008 by snatching those voters in the middle of the political spectrum and energizing his own base. The notion that this was an impossible task and that these groups were somehow in opposition to one another was spin propagated by liberals looking for solace and by snooty Beltway pundits who disparaged the tea-party populists with little understanding of their actual concerns.

What brought all these groups together? Limited government, economic conservatism, and antipathy toward backroom special-interest deal making. Rather than a conflict, there is remarkable convergence among these groups. Back in April 2009, tea-party protesters were inveighing against the stimulus plan, excess spending, and the prospect of government-run health care. There was nothing then, and nothing now, antithetical to the message that the GOP leadership has been putting forth. Recall that there was not a single GOP House vote for the stimulus plan and that no Republican senators — not even the accommodating senators from Maine — could be induced to vote for ObamaCare. In Obamaism they have found common cause and reason to put aside other topics (e.g., immigration, social issues) on which there is far less agreement.

The fable of Republican divisiveness was a convenient narrative for pundits who aimed to chase out challengers from primaries (e.g., Marco Rubio) or convince themselves that the Republicans couldn’t really seize the initiative. Those divisions on the Right (otherwise known as healthy primary competition to find the best candidates) are slight compared to the food fight that has broken out on the Left. There Democrats and their blog cheerleaders-turned-vicious-critics are forming the circular firing squad, arguing over whether to dump health care altogether, and trying to figure out how to restyle themselves as populists. (Mostly by condescendingly acknowledging that there are “angry” people out there, it seems.) You can see why they’d rather concoct a tale of Republican strife.

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