WASHINGTON, D.C. - By any standard the current Congress seems destined to set records of futility.
Look at the historically low number of laws enacted and you’ll see that congressional gridlock is taking its toll. Or set aside the numbers and just consider the big topics that have been left hanging out there. Whatever your priorities –immigration, gun control, veterans' affairs, climate change or education– Congress hasn’t gotten it done.
Even the number of bills proposed is way down. Perhaps that makes it a try nothing Congress. House Speaker John Boehner might not shy away from that characterization, having told “Face The Nation” last year, “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”
Who knows what President Harry Truman, who campaigned in 1948 against the Republican-controlled “do nothing Congress,” might have thought of the current version, which has done even less than the Congress he derided.
We do know what the American public thinks of the institution – only 7 percent say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in it, way down from 42 percent in 1973, when Gallup first asked the question.
The primary reason given for gridlock is that the nation is both sharply divided and evenly split ideologically, providing little reason for either side to compromise. And long-time congressional experts believe the Republican Party, having moved dramatically to the right, scorns compromise.
And yet some people think congressional gridlock is just fine. “My preference is a do nothing Congress that brags about it,” says Russell Roberts, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of the EconTalk podcast.
Roberts means that even by aspiring to enact legislation, Congress creates a level of uncertainty that makes it difficult to start, expand or invest in a business. Uncertainty surrounding implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act and the Affordable Care Act, both signed into law four years ago, are still hurting economic growth and job creation because the rules are still unclear, Roberts contends.
Roberts says he knows some people believe the country’s most vexing problems could be taken care of simply by getting people of good will to sit down together and solve them, a strain of thought that motivated Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign.
But whether it’s stimulating job growth, minimizing poverty, protecting the environment, or improving education and health care, he says, there are no widely held solutions, only policies that are “good for some people and bad for others.”
A far-reaching solution to gridlock, of course, is for one party to control the White House and both chambers of Congress. That last time that happened in 2009 and 2010, Democrats pushed through major legislation that Republicans still object to. It also contributed to a backlash against congressional Democrats and a divided government that stands to this day.
Given the Republicans’ apparent lock on the House and their expected gains in the Senate, the best chance for one-party rule might be for a GOP sweep in the 2016 elections. That, of course, would leave Democrats even more disenchanted.
And Roberts wouldn’t be satisfied either. He says both parties approved of bailing out financial institutions, protecting those who made bad decisions and “enriching those who were already enriched.”
Although Republicans publicly talk about a more limited federal government, Roberts says, “when they have power they tend to be as interventionist as Democrats, just in different ways.”
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