Government isn’t about Looking Busy


Over at Huffington Post, Amanda Terkel has an article critiquing Congress as a whole and the House in particular for being allegedly unproductive in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The article is a prime example of the misunderstanding many in the media have of what a functional Congress is.

Terkel’s premise is clear – passing more bills is productive:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) bristled at a suggestion on Thursday that Congress has been “historically unproductive.”

“That’s just total nonsense,” he told reporters at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “Now listen, we made clear when we took over, that we weren’t going to be doing commemorative legislation on the floor. A lot of changes. In addition to that, most Americans think we have too many laws. And what they want us to do is repeal more of those. So I reject the premise to the question.”

If the measurement of productivity is passing as few bills as possible, then yes, the last Congress was indeed the most productive ever.

But under the more traditional measurement of how many bills Congress passed and how many were signed into law by the president, it actually was the least productive since at least the 1940s.

This narrative has been popular in recent months. In January, Ezra Klein thanked God that the Congress of 2011 and 2012 was over, and cited the previous Congress as a particularly productive one:

To properly evaluate the 112th, consider the record of its predecessor, the 111th Congress, which ran from January 2009 to January 2011. The fighting 111th passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the “stimulus”), the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. It passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and expanded both the Serve America Act for community service and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It created significant new anti-tobacco regulations, ratified the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty, ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the armed forces and agreed to the 2010 tax deal, which extended the Bush tax cuts in return for the passage of middle- class stimulus.

The laws passed by the 111th Congress were controversial, particularly among Republicans. They were also big, bold initiatives that, if not always fully equal to the size of our problems, surely perched on the outer edge of Congress’s capacity to deliver solutions. Love it or hate it, the 111th Congress governed. No Congress in recent history has a record of productivity anywhere near it.

The 112th Congress? By Klein’s standards, not productive at all:

What’s the record of the 112th Congress? Well, it almost shut down the government and almost breached the debt ceiling. It almost went over the fiscal cliff (which it had designed in the first place). It cut a trillion dollars of discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act and scheduled another trillion in spending cuts through an automatic sequester, which everyone agrees is terrible policy. It achieved nothing of note on housing, energy, stimulus, immigration, guns, tax reform, infrastructure, climate change or, really, anything. It’s hard to identify a single significant problem that existed prior to the 112th Congress that was in any way improved by its two years of rule.

This narrative is common, especially those who identify as liberals, and it offers a clear example of the misguided view they have of what Congress is supposed to do.

What is the definition of a productive Congress? Objectively, one that follows the U.S. Constitution, respects the rights of states, and maximizes individual freedom. In lieu of these accomplishments, substantially cutting the federal budget, enacting tax reform, and reducing regulatory burdens on the American economy can be considered productive. If that proves too difficult, something as simple as passing a budget through normal order without engaging in deficit spending would qualify.

By these standards, neither the 2011-2012 Congress or its predecessor was productive.

But this is not how Klein or Terkel see “productive.” Passing laws for the sake of looking busy is the mark of a functional Congress; content of the legislation is irrelevant. Neither Terkel nor Klein mention repealing of bad laws as a valid use of Congressional time, yet 58% of Americans support repeal of Obamacare. Rather than cheer these unwise and unconstitutional policies, Klein and Terkel should change their calculus. “Productivity” in Congress shouldn’t be measured by how many bills get through the Senate and House, or signed into law. It’s about doing what’s right and good for the nation. By this standard, both the 111th and 112th Congresses were failures – and the 113th is well on its way to joining them.