How “Productive” Will the Electorate Be?

It has admittedly been a while since my last blog on goings-on in Congress, and I would like to say I have been waiting for something positive (or substantive) to happen, but the inactive course of the 113th Congress was, and remains, unlikely to change. Nevertheless, the decision to recess until after the election provides a good opportunity for some timely observations.

Is this the most “unproductive Congress” in history?

As I have written in earlier blogs, the evaluation of the success or failure of this Congress depends to a large extent on one’s sense of priorities. While Democratic critics emphasize the low productivity of the 113th Congress thus far (only 163 laws enacted, which may result in overall enactments below the modern record of 283 in the 112th), the statutory shortfall is distressing only if your preference is for pro-active legislating. And that, to be polite, has not been the objective of House Republicans. Recall Speaker John Boehner’s admonition to judge Republicans not on how many bills they enact, but on how many they repeal. OK, they haven’t delivered on the latter either, but you can hardly fault them for failing to do what they explicitly promised they would do: very little. To the extent that such inaction (or indifference) results in heightened contempt for Congress and the federal government, so much the better, since a core philosophical and strategic objective of Republicans (and especially the far Right that exercises effective control over the leadership) is to demean and diminish the stature of Washington, Congress and their own offices. So, “unproductive”? A quantifiable “yes.” A “failure?” Depends on your point of view.

Yes, but … income inequality. Climate change. Economic stimulus and jobs. Immigration reform. Minimum wage. Voting rights reauthorization. Campaign finance reform. Affordability of higher education. Well, those are all good points, and Democrats continually lash out at Republicans for inaction on these priorities (while passing, and monotonously re-passing, 29 bills that have less prospects than a Beatles reunion). As former NH Sen. John Sununu (himself not exactly an Old Yankee, Kenneth Keating Republican) has noted, “This, in the political trade, is what is politely called “messaging.’” But, as noted above, Republicans have no particular interest in enacting legislation on challenging subjects, and certainly not if crafting enactable statutes involves compromising with Democrats and he-whose-name-cannot-be-mentioned (and I don’t mean Voldemort). Government involvement in such sacrosanct areas as climate, the economy, and tax policy is problematic, not something to be encouraged. (They make an exception for voting for military engagement, even if they believe the Commander in Chief has all the strategic acumen of the designer of the Maginot Line.) Who cares about restricted voting rights or unlimited big money manipulation of campaigns if the result benefits your political self-interest? Even in areas like immigration, where House conservatives agree there are shortcomings in the status quo, engaging in the legislative process implies compromise, which is not among their hallowed traditions. This week, Speaker Boehner’s staff locked his Longworth office’s doors rather than meet with voting rights activists delivering a petition with over a half million signatures. Barring the door didn’t make the issue (or the dissatisfied voters) go away; it just refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns. How’s that for a symbolic summary of the 113th Congress?

Well, at least the government didn’t shut down, again. True, although a shutdown might have made the point about the indifference of the House leadership to urgent issues, if the point needs to be made more clearly. It is instructive to note, however, that as with past Continuing Resolutions (and debt ceilings, and tax extensions) that the House has passed since Republicans assumed the majority in 2011, must-pass bills do pass, but only because of Democratic votes. Speaker Boehner has been consistently incapable of convincing his own Conference members to produce a sufficient number of votes for essential bills, which means he must make some compromises with Democrats who are willing to vote for CRs and other nose-holding bills they detest because they know that a shutdown would be even worse. A substantial number of Tea Partiers therefore have the luxury of telling constituents they vote against spending bills and are happy to shut down the government if they do not get 100% of what they want, knowing that Democrats will provide the needed 40 or 50 votes to keep the lights on. And Speaker Boehner knows he has no choice but to rely on House Democrats, and so keeps CRs clean of nasty little policy riders the hard Right would like to attach (and then still likely vote against the bill). And if worse comes to worse and there is a shut-down, well, doesn’t that also serve the purpose of stigmatizing Congress, so where is the pressure for responsibility?

It is easy to point the finger at Congress, and at the Tea Party in particular, for the inaction of Congress on such a plethora of issues which many Americans believe merit urgent legislative action. And indeed, polling confirms a high disapproval rate of Congress in general, and of the Republicans who run the House –72% disapproval in the last poll I have seen. But politicians ultimately don’t care about polls; they care about votes, and now that Congress has departed for campaign season (on the earliest departure date since before President Obama was even born), the focus of attention should be turning to voters, not the electeds.

I hate to wag the lecturing finger in front of an indignant electorate, but nothing makes a politician breathe easier than an opponent who is too outraged to vote. All of the inaction, indifference and teeth-grinding frustration pent up by congressional critics, of any persuasion, will have no impact whatsoever if, as is broadly being predicted, six in ten eligible voters sit out the mid-term election. A politician elected is a politician who believes his or her views have been ratified by whatever subset of the constituency has bothered to cast a ballot. It is bad enough that so many people who do vote choose candidates whose track record and campaign rhetoric guarantee continued gridlock; but when those who favor a more constructive and collaborative approach inadvertently buy into the negative frame about Congress and indignantly sit out the election, well, the odds of change are pretty slim. Yes, it means voting for someone you don’t always agree with, maybe even on a big issue. But we don’t have much of a chance for electing a Congress that can fashion compromises on tough issues if we only vote for uncompromising candidates whose rhetoric is pleasing but whose legislative skills are non-existent.