The ineffectual on the Hill [Editorial]

The week between Christmas and New Year's is surely the nation's least productive, and that's why it ought to be dubbed "The 113th Congress Week." Naturally, the members of the U.S. House and Senate who so richly deserve this distinction are observing the week by doing what they do best — taking a two-week break.

How unproductive a year has it been for the 535 men and women who compose the 113th? It's been historic, thank you. Not only have they passed fewer bills than any Congress in modern history (64) but they've spent more time not getting the work done.

That is the very definition of unproductive. Members can't even claim they were out of town meeting with constituents. The House spent more days in session and the Senate more hours in session than they normally do. Nor can they make the claim that it was a product of partisanship — Congress has been divided before and has still gotten more accomplished.

The last time Congress had a year this unproductive was 2009, and they still managed to pass 125 bills, or nearly twice what was accomplished this year. Looking for a symbol of the 113th? Surely, it would the image of Sen. Ted Cruz speaking for more than 21 hours straight in a faux filibuster (so-called because he wasn't technically holding any legislation up, which would be the point of an actual filibuster).

Rarely has so much effort been expended to accomplish so little. Indeed, the talk-a-thon was part of a larger strategy endorsed by tea party groups to hold up the federal budget to halt further implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But all it accomplished was to waste billions of dollars, close national parks and put federal workers on the street for two weeks.

That makes the "faux-ibuster" the ideal microcosm of the 113th — a perfect storm of ineffectuality. Meaningless jabber that everyone involved knows is meaningless, yet the pursuit of which causes actual harm to the nation. Even House Speaker John Boehner later marveled at the certain-to-fail anti-Obamacare strategy foisted on his Republican membership by ultra-conservative groups with the now-famous response, "Are you kidding me?"

The episode also illustrates what makes the do-nothing Congress so alarming. While one might argue that conservatives often find it more useful to oppose legislation than to pass any they find unpalatable, it's clear that there's a Republican agenda that's not advancing as much as a Democratic one that's stuck in this gridlock.

Just look at what's been left on the table. The Farm Bill, which is especially vital to rural Red State voters, is on the to-do list. So is immigration reform favored by business groups and which many Republican strategists see as vital to keeping the GOP competitive in national elections in the future. Extended Unemployment Insurance benefits were allowed to expire even though most Americans wanted Washington to continue them — a recent poll found that was true even in Mr. Boehner's own district in Ohio.

One especially urgent matter left undone is raising the debt ceiling. Whether that will lead to another standoff is unclear, but Republicans have indicated they're prepared to hold the nation's credit hostage again while Democrats say they won't bow to such extortion. Once again, the closer Congress comes to the actual deadline when the nation can no longer pay its outstanding obligations (February or March), the greater the chance for lasting damage to the economic recovery.

That Congress allowed SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) to be reduced and has yet to take serious action to raise the minimum wage demonstrates that Democratic initiatives are just as stuck in the do-nothingness as any favored by the GOP. And don't even think about ambitious proposals like developing a coherent national energy strategy or a long-term budget agreement that would put people back to work while addressing unsustainable entitlement spending. That's laughably beyond the abilities of the 113th.

One of the few bright spots of recent weeks was that the Senate finally approved some key judicial nominations, but that required a change in filibuster rules that angered Republicans and may have made the chamber less open to cooperation and compromise in the future — although it's hard to imagine that it can get much worse.

More than six decades ago, it was the 80th Congress that was first labeled "Do Nothing" by then-President Harry Truman, but they look like overachievers by contemporary standards. The 80th may have opposed the Fair Deal, but they didn't hold 33 votes trying to repeal the president's signature health care law as the GOP-controlled House did this year. That represents a robust commitment to do-nothingness that deserves a prominent spot in the history books.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad