Freshman Republican Sen Kelly Ayotte is often asked what surprises her most about serving in the esteemed upper chamber of Congress. The earnest, 43-year-old conservative from New Hampshire has come up with an uncomplicated reply:
“I thought that we would vote on a lot more bills.”
She most recently offered this answer from her Senate office at 3:45 on a Thursday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had just announced that the Senate was done voting for the week. Senators wouldn’t be needed until the following Tuesday.
In the lobby outside Ayotte’s office, a television tuned to C-SPAN was showing an empty Senate chamber. In offices up and down the hallway, aides were booking flights home.
So it goes these days on Capitol Hill, a place of many headlines and much drama but not a whole lot of legislating.
The 112th Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive in recent memory — as measured by votes taken, bills made into laws, nominees approved. By most of those metrics, this crowd is underperforming even the “do-nothing Congress” of 1948, as Harry Truman dubbed it. The hot-temper era of Clinton impeachment in the 1990s saw more bills become law.
There is no shortage of explanations for the apparent lack of legislative success. Political observers see hyperpartisanship and perpetual campaigning that makes once-routine steps politically perilous.
Experts cite the rise of a brand of conservatism that aims for a government that governs least. Historians note that it’s not unusual for Congress to take a breather after a period of hyperactivity like the one Washington completed last year.
Lawmakers have a long list of politically tinged reasons: Republicans who control the House blame Democratic leaders in the Senate for refusing to hold votes that might prove problematic for members up for election next year; Democratic leaders in the Senate blame Republicans in both chambers for not working with them on legislation that has a shot of winning a presidential signature.
Perhaps the only group seeing a bright side is the Democratic minority in the House, which supports virtually none of the bills voted on in that chamber but doesn’t have to worry about them ever becoming law.
President Obama called out Congress when he argued last week that members have to “be here” to make progress on its top priority: negotiating a deal on the debt that can pass the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate.
But it’s not necessarily time spent in Washington where this Congress is falling behind. It’s how little it accomplishes when it’s here.
“I put it this way: no harm done yet,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). “But nothing accomplished yet — with a lot of ominous things that still may happen.”
To be sure, lawmakers are grappling with big issues, such as the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the government’s debt ceiling. Action on that front, however, has been behind closed doors in on-again off-again budget negotiations. Nearly all other major priorities — tax reform or a 2012 budget — have been delayed while lawmakers work on a deal.
And so the legislative trickle has slowed to a drip. From January until the end of May, the last date for which comparable statistics are available, 16 bills had become law — compared with 50 during that period last year, or 28 in 2007, also a time of divided government.
The Senate has taken 84 “yea and nay” votes and the House 112, roughly half the number as in 2007. The Senate by the end of May had confirmed just over half the administration’s nominees; recent congresses typically have been near the end of the list by this point.
The bills that have passed this year largely have been extensions of expiring laws. Also on this year’s list was a must-pass deal to keep the government from shutting down, which essentially was a piece of unfinished business from the previous Congress.
Then there were three laws naming public buildings, a resolution appointing a member of the Smithsonian Institution and one extending the life of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission.
The inertia might be best observed at the Senate Budget Committee.
When Ayotte was named to the committee after Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) abruptly resigned in April, it was a coveted “get” for a conservative who won office by promising to cut spending. She came out of her first planning meeting with a list of proposals, only to hear Reid say Democrats would not introduce a budget until after the deficit talks.
“I got appointed. I was excited about it. I had one good meeting and then it was done. That’s been my experience on that committee,” Ayotte said. The committee has not met since April 5.
But it’s not just Democrats putting a drag on legislative activity. Republicans on Thursday boycotted a hearing on a series of free trade deals, derailing what was considered a bipartisan effort.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) held his own protest to highlight the Democrats’ missing budget. Although Democrats say a budget plan is coming next week, Johnson used a procedural move to keep Reid from scheduling a vote on a resolution authorizing military involvement in Libya — the rare issue likely to find bipartisan agreement.
The “tea party” freshman, who says he’s used to working in business “where you focus on accomplishing things,” said he realized he was stalling “a very important issue.”
“But the fact of the matter is it simply doesn’t address the fact that we’re bankrupting this nation,” he said.
Much of this has been taken in stride by folks who’ve been around for a while.
“If you’re not comfortable with delay, frustration and impatience, get out of the Senate,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “It’s the nature of the institution, but I think we’ve taken it to an art form.”
At the other end of the building, the House isn’t exactly breaking records.
The 50 bills it has passed in the first five months of 2011 represent the lowest such number in more than 15 years. Republicans’ anti-Washington rhetoric translated into a schedule intended to keep lawmakers out of Washington. The result has been fewer days in session and fewer votes.
Reid, borrowing the critique usually aimed at him, recently complained that Senate bills — a patent reform measure and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration — had fallen into the “big black hole” of the House.
In fact, each side is piling bills on the other’s doorstep while they wait for a deal to come out of the debt talks.
That package could prove that legislative activity doesn’t necessarily correspond to substance.
“Obviously, if they reach some kind of deal that results in a sweeping change in the scope of government and the tax rates, they don’t have to do much else to go down as a consequential Congress,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “Most everywhere else, their influence is puny.”
With an Aug. 2 deadline, it may take much of the summer to find out. After that, both bodies leave for a long summer break and return after Labor Day.
By: Kathleen Hennessey, Staff Writer, Chicago Tribune, July 3, 2011
One of the more common Republican criticisms of President Obama, at least in the context of the debt-reduction talks, is that he hasn’t shown enough “leadership.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the floor late last week to cry, “Where in the world has the president been for the last month? … He’s the one in charge.”
One of the parts of Obama’s press conference this morning that I especially liked was the president’s pushback against the notion that he’s been a passive observer in this process.
“I’ve got to say, I’m very amused when I start hearing comments about, ‘Well, the president needs to show more leadership on this.’ Let me tell you something. Right after we finished dealing with the government shutdown, averting a government shutdown, I called the leaders here together. I said we’ve got to get this done. I put Vice President Biden in charge of a process — that, by the way, has made real progress — but these guys have met, worked through all of these issues. I met with every single caucus for an hour to an hour and a half each — Republican senators, Democratic senators; Republican House, Democratic House. I’ve met with the leaders multiple times. At a certain point, they need to do their job.
“And so, this thing, which is just not on the level, where we have meetings and discussions, and we’re working through process, and when they decide they’re not happy with the fact that at some point you’ve got to make a choice, they just all step back and say, ‘Well, you know, the president needs to get this done.’ They need to do their job.
“Now is the time to go ahead and make the tough choices. That’s why they’re called leaders…. They’re in one week, they’re out one week. And then they’re saying, ‘Obama has got to step in.’ You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here. Let’s get it done.”
I’m glad the president pressed this, not just because he sounded a bit like Truman slamming the do-nothing Congress, but because many in the media have bought into the notion that lawmakers have dug in on this, and the president hasn’t. That’s nonsense.
Congressional Republicans haven’t been slaving away, trying to strike a credible deal. They’ve been making threats, drawing lines in the sand, and barking orders about what is and is not allowed to be on the negotiating table.
“They need to do their job.” Part of those responsibilities includes working in good faith to find an equitable compromise with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House, and then doing what they must do, but what the president cannot do: passing the damn debt-ceiling increase.
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, June 29, 2011