As Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain is fond of saying, Congress, with an approval rating of 9 percent to 13 percent, is down to “blood relatives and paid staff.” It is no wonder that President Barack Obama is running against the “do-nothing” 112th Congress and that the pitch is resonating with lots of voters.
That, in turn, made it easy for the president to shoot a few fish in the barrel and devote a portion of his State of the Union address to calls for Congress to cleanse itself.
That was followed by swift bipartisan action — call it a stampede — last week by the Senate to take up and pass the STOCK Act; it took a yeoman effort by both party leaders in the Senate to avoid sweeping amendments to toughen up ethics rules, even as they had to swallow a number of additions to the bill that they really didn’t want.
The push on the STOCK Act, and the House Republicans’ reluctance to pass the Senate version, reminds me of the obtuseness of Democratic leaders in Congress in 1994 who delayed for months grappling with the Swett-Shays bill, named for former Reps. Dick Swett (D-N.H.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), to take care of the problem of Congress passing laws that burdened others while exempting themselves.
I remember talking to those leaders in 1993 and 1994 to warn them that this issue was an easy-to-understand symbol of an imperial Congress living well while exempting itself from the burdens that everyday Americans face. Insider trading is today’s version. The Senate at least appears to have learned something in the intervening 18 years.
But the STOCK Act, if it makes it into law, is not a major legislative accomplishment. And the 112th Congress is strikingly bereft of accomplishments. There were 80 public laws enacted in the first session, the fewest since 1947 — and about a quarter of them were renaming post offices. A dozen or so were short-term continuing resolutions that were a warm-up act to the most notable event of the 112th so far — the debt limit debacle and votes.
Now that Congress is back, one of the first actions likely to result in another public law is the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization — but of course it is the final step in another embarrassing debacle, the shutdown of much of the FAA last summer, which meant thousands of jobs furloughed during the height of the construction season, a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and a disruption in the advancement of the new generation of computers for air traffic control.
There have been brighter moments, including the bipartisan passage of the three free-trade agreements that were mired in disputes and squabbles for years before enactment.
And the number of laws is not, and should not be, the sine qua non of functionality or productivity in a Congress. The quality and sweep of laws matter; and conservatives have a point in saying that more laws often means more government.
But let’s face it — gridlock and dispute have been the order of the day during a time when major problems at home and abroad have festered. That reality was punctuated by the last embarrassment of the year, the fight over the extension of the payroll tax cut that saw Republicans in the House undercut a deal struck by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and widely supported by Senate Republicans, before the blowback led to a two-month extension that expires at the end of this month.
It is not at all clear that this Congress will take the steps necessary to keep the country moving forward through some short-term stimulus. That includes extending the payroll tax cut for the year, which is very much in jeopardy, and some version of the president’s plan to ease the terms on millions of mortgages, which would both stabilize the housing market and put several thousand dollars of cash into the hands of families that would spend the money and improve economic growth when we most need it.
There is a lot of talk on Capitol Hill, and among Congressional reporters, about the division among Congressional Republicans about how to handle the remainder of the year.
A solid core of lawmakers would prefer to shut it down now — to do little, to block Obama initiatives and to make sure nothing happens for which he could get credit and to avoid treading on the toes or message of the Republican presidential nominee.
There are others who fear that the unprecedented, angry disapproval Americans feel toward Congress could devastate the Republican majority in the House, with the president gaining traction through their intransigence to make the battle cry against the “do-nothing Congress” reverberate. These different views will play out openly in the next couple of weeks because of the action-forcing timetable on the payroll tax and will play out again as the president pushes hard for his mortgage plan.
There are similar divisions in the Senate, over nominations and the same policy issues. A Senate in which the coming months involve repeated use of filibusters and holds, with the president publicly calling out the minority for its obstruction and intransigence, is probably not what McConnell wants — especially if the backdrop is a House where there is an open division among majority Republicans over whether to block policies that are broadly popular.
If the remainder of this year is an accentuated version of the gridlock and division we saw last year, it could play out politically in different and unusual ways. It is not entirely fanciful to imagine a backlash against incumbents that gives Democrats back the House — and sends the Senate into GOP hands. Or it could be a backlash, like in 2006, against the president’s party.
But another real possibility is a major backlash against the Republicans as the visible party of obstruction at a time when the country needs action. It will make for a messy but fascinating year ahead.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.