In Congress, Less Can Be More
December 15, 2011
President Barack Obama is running against a so-called "do-nothing Congress" in imitation of Harry Truman's successful 1948 re-election bid. Some media outlets also contend that they have proof of low congressional productivity.
But that alleged shortcoming might not be a bad thing. For example, it is clear that there has been a lot less hot air this year on Capitol Hill. The Congressional Record for the first session of the 112th Congress is not over, yet its 16,078 pages of legislative debate, as recorded by a recent accounting, were less than half of the 33,022 pages racked up by the initial session of the 110th Congress. That was the first year of Nancy Pelosi as House speaker and Harry Reid as Senate majority leader.
In their four years of joint Democratic leadership, Rep. Pelosi and Sen. Reid presided over 105,235 closely packed pages of congressional debate. They produced massive new laws, some of them thousands of pages long, often rushing them to the floor before anyone could read them. Of Obamacare, then-Speaker Pelosi infamously said, "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."
For all their talk, however, the Pelosi-Reid Congresses passed historically low numbers of laws compared to the record since 1981. That was largely due to cramming lots of complicated legislation and obscure spending details into as few unwieldy -- and hence incomprehensible -- bills as possible.
The current Congress has passed even fewer bills and could set a record before the session ends. President Obama puts that down to Republican obstruction, a theme he has reprised this week during the ongoing partisan fight over how to extend the Social Security payroll tax reduction.
But it would be misleading to conclude that the Republican-run House has been sitting on its hands. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lists more than two dozen major House initiatives that are stuck in the Democratic-controlled Senate with little hope of emerging.
The House produced a federal budget proposal; the Senate did not. The House passed bills that would require federal regulatory agencies to justify the economic costs of regulation, help small businesses, increase energy production and repeal Obamacare. The consistent theme of these bills is to reduce the burdens of government by cutting red tape and deficit spending. Rep. Cantor has also eliminated a lot of busy work that used to fill the House calendar.
Meanwhile, over the last three decades the Senate has rarely logged fewer days than it has this year.
And where there has been congressional obstruction, it is often to the satisfaction of Democrats. For instance, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., says he is grateful the Senate is blocking House legislation.
So statistics on congressional productivity can be misleading.
And despite what the president says, in Congress less is often more.