Commentary Magazine


Two Cheers for a Do-Nothing Congress

As the year winds down, the media is taking a close look at what Congress has done in 2013 and is expressing its extreme displeasure. As the Washington Post noted in an editorial on Monday, the gridlock between the Democratic controlled White House and Senate and the Republican-run House of Representatives has led to only 52 bills being passed. Unless Congress kicks into overdrive in the final weeks of the year (during which they will only be in session for 10 days), this will be smallest number of bills passed since World War Two. That state of affairs has led to a spate of stories about this being the most unproductive Congress in history and strengthened the “throw the bums out” sentiment that has led the national legislature to have approval ratings just slightly above those of convicted criminals.

Some of the criticism lobbed at Congress is justified. On some issues, the leaderships of the two parties have botched opportunities to find common ground and to address ongoing issues that required new legislation. Even on issues where there is profound disagreement such as immigration, there was almost certainly room for compromise that would have made possible the passage of some needed reforms of a broken federal system. Even worse than that, there can be little disagreement about the fact that the failure to pass a budget is a disgrace.

But before we all join in the party dumping on Congress and calling for its membership to be collectively defeated for reelection, some perspective is needed. For all of its shortcomings, its inability to cram even more legislation into the already crowded pages of the Federal Register is not the worst thing you can say about a governing body. Not doing the president’s bidding and passing the laundry list of Obama administration second-term objectives in 2013 is a good thing, not a failure. Despite the assumption on the part of most liberal pundits pursuing the do-nothing Congress meme this month that its sole job is to pile up more laws, regulations, and taxes, sometimes the best thing it can do is to prevent the passage of unneeded or harmful laws. In that respect, this Congress has largely succeeded.

At the heart of the debate about what happened during the first session of the 113th Congress in the history of our republic is an assumption that its primary duty is to pass laws to keep expanding the power of the federal government and to feed its insatiable appetite for more money. Congress’s job is to consider legislation, not to merely pile more layers on the federal government. But its critics seem to think that any reluctance to keep feeding the governmental leviathan is a sin. If some members of Congress are insisting on a fundamental reform of this mess rather than merely being good soldiers and rubber-stamping a continuation of past boondoggles, that is not something for which they should be castigated.

Nor is fair to place all the blame on Congress, as liberal Post blogger Ezra Klein does, for the nation’s lackluster economic recovery. Klein cites statistics that bolster his claim that the congressional tussles over the budget and then ObamaCare that led to the government shutdown set back the economy. The shutdown was an ill-advised maneuver that accomplished nothing for the Republicans or the country, but to assume that without it and the GOP’s disagreement over Democratic objectives that the economy would be purring along on all cylinders is unwarranted. What goes on in Washington does affect the economy. But the underlying problems that have made this the most anemic recovery from a downturn in recent history have far more to do with President Obama’s policies and structural problems than anything dreamed up by the House GOP leadership.

Klein also harps on the fact that the House has, in his opinion, wasted a lot of time in futile attempts to repeal ObamaCare. But in making that argument, he is actually highlighting why a Congress that will pass controversial pieces of legislation at all costs is far worse than one than is reluctant to pass anything. The 111th Congress that sat during the first two years of the Obama administration was under the sole control of the Democrats and largely did the president’s bidding. That caused it to push through a massive stimulus package that cost the country close to a trillion dollars but did little to help the economy. It followed up that dubious achievement by railroading ObamaCare through both bodies via legislative tricks on a party-line vote. The pitfalls of approving a bill that then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said would have to be passed before it could be understood is now readily apparent to both parties.

Rather than harping on the 113th Congress’s failure to do as the president said, what we should be doing now is regretting the willingness of its predecessors to pass bills that were not fully thought out and which didn’t have the broad support of the American people. By not adding new ObamaCares to the nation’s burden, the 113th did its job. Would that the 111th been similarly stalemated.

As Klein rightly notes, this is a highly polarized Congress. In the past, both parties had large non-ideological contingents that worked together rather than contended over ideas. Such moderates are less common today in part because of gerrymandered districts. But it is also the product of a sense on the part of both liberals and conservatives that filling Congress with time-serving career politicians more intent on feathering their own nests than on addressing core issues was a bad idea.

In some ways that is an unfortunate development as civility on the Hill has declined. But it is not so much a product of dysfunction as it is of democracy. Members of Congress have a duty to see that the government keeps functioning, something that some of them forgot during the shutdown. But its obligation is to serve and reflect the views of the voters, not the federal bureaucracy, the executive branch, or even the press. At the moment, Americans are divided on many key issues and that is reflected in the decision of the voters last year to keep in place a Republican House alongside a Democratic Senate and president. That is frustrating for partisans on both sides as well as to those who work in and serve the federal establishment. Though the members of the governing class would like this problem to be overcome by a new birth of bipartisanship that would allow the liberal project to continue unhindered, they should not be surprised that those who fault past Congresses—including those run by Republicans in the last decade—for feeding the government’s tax-and-spend addictions don’t share their opinions.

Let’s hope Congress finds a way to pass a budget by the end of the year. Even if it does, it won’t go down as one of the great ones in our history and it—and its successors—are likely to continue in their role as the nation’s political whipping boys (and girls). But the desire to blast it as the worst ever has more to do with liberal anger at the willingness of the GOP to say no to President Obama and the Democrats. If that’s what it takes to prevent more ObamaCares, let’s hope the second session of this Congress and all those that follow are similarly dysfunctional.

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