Wonkbook: Congress Is Lazy!

by Charles C. W. Cooke

From Wonkbook, obviously:

Six months into its term, there’s little evidence that the 113th Congress will be the worst Congress ever. But they might be the laziest.

On Monday, simply by doing nothing, they allowed the interest rate on student loans to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That might be permissible if they were busy with more important things, like inventing a cure for cancer that’s also a source of endless clean energy. But they’re not even working this week.

The 112th Congress passed 220 laws. That’s the fewest of any Congress since we began keeping track in 1948. But the 113th Congress is on track to pass even fewer laws than that. “Just 15 bills have become law this year, compared to 23 over the same period in 2011,” writes Dashiel Bennett at the Atlantic Wire. It’s the do-nothingest Congress ever!

This sort of thinking makes sense only if you assume three things. The first is that Congressional inaction is the product of indolence and not impediment; the second is that the natural state of affairs is one in which Congress is constantly passing laws and government is growing; and the third is that Congress is best when it is busiest. It is not surprising that those of Wonkbook’s bent would be tempted by all of these ideas – especially the latter two. Nor it is extraordinary that they would attempt to obfuscate their typically rampant question-begging under the carapace of detached pragmatism. But it’s still silly. At the moment, the two parties simply don’t agree. We call this “gridlock” for a reason. (Try telling your girlfriend that she was only stuck in traffic because she was shiftless.) Are we really to presume that Congress would be so quiet if either party controlled both Houses and the presidency? Pop quiz: Why are the 112th and 113th Congresses so unproductive where the 111th wasn’t?

The House, to pick but one example, has been extremely busy repealing Obamacare over and over and over again, while the Senate has repeatedly declined to take up that legislation. Does that make the Senate “lazy”? Or does it mean that it and the House have conflicting prerogatives? Rather than just noting that things happen — or, rather, don’t happen, in this case – one has to ask why. Why did student loans double for want of legislation? Were the various parties unable to agree on legislation because they were weren’t working this week? Or were they not working this week because they were unable to agree on legislation?

RollCall covered the issue like this:

Senate Democrats battled among themselves over student loans Thursday, holding dueling news conferences about the right way to prevent interest rates from doubling in four days.

It was an unusual situation for the party with an issue on which it has typically been united. And the split all but guaranteed that the chamber will blow past the July 1 deadline, when new student loan applicants who receive need-based federal aid will see their interest rates rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

But this week’s intraparty division is not especially surprising given that Senate Democrats have been simmering for months over President Barack Obama’s April budget proposal, which included a student loan proposal designed to foster bipartisan agreement. Now, that simmer has heated to a boil, with many congressional Democrats believing that the White House plan — which Republicans have largely adopted — pushed them too far to the right.

This sounds about right in a country that hasn’t yet managed to abolish politics. As usual, Wonkbook is exhibiting precisely is the sort of thinking that leads to silly charges of “obstructionism,” always cast as if “obstruction” were an inherently bad thing when you’re against the aims of your opponents. It is exhibiting the sort of thinking that has led the Washington press corps collectively to decide that the president could just magically “take control” if he wanted to, as if his problem were that he can’t be bothered to rediscover his mojo rather than that he has to a deal with a House that (legitimately) disagrees with his approach to almost everything. Worst of all, it is exhibiting the sort of thinking that leads to fatuous charges that the other side needs to stop being so “ideological” and ”political” and “rigid” and “extreme” and get around to doing exactly what the party you happen to favor has proposed.

That, not Congress, is “lazy.”