By: Scott Jennings
With President Obama’s second midterm looming, people are beginning to look more closely at the election and wonder what Congress could be like if all of it actually worked, as opposed to just half of it. Americans are treated to routine clips from news outlets reminding us just how few bills this particular Congress has passed:
- “…the 113th Congress, barring a legislative miracle, will soon officially be the least productive ever,” reports The Washington Post.
- “With only a lame-duck, post-Election Day mop-up session left before a new Congress takes office in January, the 113th is on track to be one of the least productive congresses — in terms of laws passed and signed by the president — in 60 years,” the Roll Call newspaper tells us.
While it is true that Congress as a whole has stopped passing bills, half of it is functioning quite well – the half controlled by House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican majority. In fact, the GOP-led House has passed over 350 bills that await action in Harry Reid’s Senate.
It is a wonder that any Senator can see the front of the upper chamber what with the massive stack of House-passed legislation sitting on the Majority Leader’s desk. To be fair, some of the bills are actually languishing in Democratically-controlled committees, bottled up by chairmen appointed by and answerable to Reid, so I suppose it isn’t all his fault.
But what of the 350-plus bills that have passed out of the House? They must be highly controversial, passed only with Republican votes, right? Surely it must be that Speaker Boehner steamrolled the opposition, forging ahead with ideas that only the most strident right-winger could support, right?
Wrong. In fact, 98 percent of them passed with bipartisan support. Half of the bills actually passed unanimously! About 70 percent of the legislation awaiting Senate action passed with two-thirds of the House voting in favor, and several of the bills were actually sponsored by Democrats, according to an analysis by Representative Lynn Jenkins of Kansas.
Despite what you may have heard from the pundits, bipartisanship is alive and well in Washington D.C. Its home just happens to be in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans who run the place regularly pass bills with support from both parties, sending them to die in the legislative abyss down the hall. If Harry Reid’s Senate were a Star Wars character, it would be the sarlacc, slowly digesting its prey over a period of one thousand years. In other words, stuff goes in but never comes out.
The words “dysfunction” and “do-nothing” frequently adorn press accounts of the 113th Congress, but the 435 House members are unfairly festooned with descriptions that ought to be restricted to one person—Harry Reid—who has contorted the Senate into a full-blown surrogate of President Obama’s White House, and one concerned only with its majority party’s electoral prospects.
With the notable exception of Obama’s stated desire to enact free trade agreements, to which Reid dealt a “body blow” back in January by opposing Obama’s request for fast track authority, Reid has essentially shelved any idea – even the bipartisan ones – that don’t appear on Obama’s punch list. Even Reid’s move on free trade smacked of cynical politics, though, as Senator John Cornyn of Texas pointed out: “I think the majority leader’s focus is on the November elections and he doesn’t want to expose his vulnerable members to controversial votes.”
Senator Reid has shut down the U.S. Senate to protect his incumbents from taking supposedly bad votes that could hurt their chances for reelection, but he cannot protect them from President Obama’s own words on the subject, uttered last week during a speech at Northwestern University: “I am not on the ballot this fall…But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them,” Obama said.
Despite Reid’s unprecedented tactic of shutting down the Senate for brazen political purposes, President Obama may have undone all of it by reminding voters what’s really at stake in November. A president with a dismal approval rating reminded voters that they can cast a ballot against his “policies” in November, because they are, in fact, “on the ballot.” Beyond that, Reid and Obama are swimming against the tide of history, as veteran political observer Charlie Cook pointed out when he said that “…the pattern of second-term, midterm elections shows significant losses for the party in the White House.”
Even so, the race to control the U.S. Senate is very close. Most national forecasting models do give Republicans better than a 50% chance of becoming the majority party, but certainly there are a lot of close races. As a Republican strategist I’d rather be us than them, but Democrats have done a good job funding national campaign efforts, running more television ads than Republicans in the top 10 target Senate races recently, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal.
Elections have consequences. Keeping Harry Reid in charge of the Senate by reelecting a Democratic majority would ensure further dysfunction. If voters really care about making Congress work, they can remove the obstacle to regular order come November.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.