State, national columnists

Do-nothing Congress better than the actively-do-harm Congress

By From page A7 | August 07, 2014

When it comes to profound disappointment in the ability of Congress to do its job, I yield to no one. We’ve lost a critical governmental function in an advanced economy in a complex world: the ability to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions – in both the foreign and domestic spheres. At a time of particularly intense challenges, House Republicans spent part of last week preparing to sue President Barack Obama.

At the same time, before we advocate for a do-something Congress, it’s important to know what it’s planning on doing. After all, be careful what you wish for. Congress can easily do more harm than good – and has in the past. A better aspiration, especially as regards the economy, is a do-no-harm Congress.

Let me explain.

First, no question that the do-nothing label applies as per their legislative record. As Charles Blow noted in The New York Times on Sunday, quoting a Pew study:

“As of Wednesday the current Congress had enacted 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over an equivalent time span. And only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation, under our deliberately broad criteria (no post-office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other purely ceremonial laws).”

But while this record surely looks bad to some, it looks like success to others, particularly that section of the electorate that sent members to Congress to block legislation, to shut things down, to hobble the process. True, they’re a minority, but in our non-parliamentary system, such a minority has considerable clout.

So, I ask myself, is this team capable of smart immigration or corporate tax reform? That there’s a rhetorical question.

But what do I mean by a “do-no-harm Congress?” I’ll use economic growth data to illustrate.

Fiscal policy – taxing and spending decisions – subtracted around 1.5 percentage points off of the growth in gross domestic product in 2013. That’s equivalent to more than 1 million jobs. This year, fiscal policy has been relatively neutral in terms of its impact on growth.

That’s both a marked improvement – a clear move towards “do-no-harm” – and a reason why employment growth has accelerated this year compared to last: in the first seven months of this year, we’ve added an average of 230,000 jobs per month compared to 196,000 over the comparable period last year, a cumulative difference of 240,000 jobs. That’s not a huge difference, but I’ll take it.

So am I really saying we’re better off with these guys and gals suing the president instead of dealing with the challenges we face? Not at all – I know for a fact that there are members of both parties who are capable of reaching effective compromise that would move the country forward. But because these voices and efforts have been consistently blocked and thwarted, all that I’m asking for now is to do no harm.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed?” among other books.


Jared Bernstein


Discussion | 14 comments

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  • rlw895August 07, 2014 - 4:59 am

    Congress in capable of passing competent legislation. Witness the VA reform bill. The do-nothing congress has, for political reasons, decided to minimize giving president Obama bills he can sign--or veto, for that matter. Congressional Democrats block bills Obama would veto, while congressional Republicans block bills that he can sign. Is it any wonder Obama spends so much time outside of Washington?

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  • DanielAugust 07, 2014 - 7:04 am

    First of all let's get the facts straight, instead mindlessly parroting the stereotyping what the DNC controlled lame streams rantings are. The do-everything House has passed a record 361 bills including bi-partisan ones that have single handily been blocked by the idiot Harry Reid from ever even being heard on the Senate floor, Do you know that the House even passed comprehensive migration reform news which the lame stream has censored? The biggest problem is that there's an AWOL president that would rather fund raise by bashing the GOP, play golf and vacation rather than ever pick up the phone and call congress let alone be persistent like every single previous president before him,

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  • rlw895August 07, 2014 - 9:51 pm

    Weren't like 60 of those bills to repeal ObamaCare?

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  • Mr. SmithAugust 07, 2014 - 10:15 pm

    That still leaves about 300 non-ACA related bills that Harry refused to bring to the floor, rlw. Jeez--get a new talking point. And why not allow one or more of those 60 bills to repeal AND REPLACE the ACA to a vote? Isn't that the American way? Apparently not in a democrat controlled senate. The party of no? Obama and the dems--hands down. But don't tell the lamestream media.

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  • rlw895August 08, 2014 - 12:36 am

    Mr.S: It's talking point and reply. My point is the number of bills passed is irrelevant to make the point. Give me ONE "plain vanilla" (routine, noncontroversial) bill that the Democrats have bottled up. Obama claims the Republicans won't pass even "plain vanilla" bills. We can look up what he meant. The implication is IF the Republicans pass one, the Democrats in the Senate go along, and Obama signs it. Has Harry Reid stopped any such bills?

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  • TermiteAugust 08, 2014 - 7:18 am

    OK, rlw895, here goes. As of July 7, 2014. 352 bills passed by the House are on Harry Reid's desk. 98 percent (yes, ninety-eight percent) passed the House with bipartisan (you do understand what that means, I hope) support, 50 percent ( that means half) passed the House with no opposition at all, and 55 of the bills on good ol' Harry's desk were introduced by Democrats. Now let's see you spin these numbers!

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  • rlw895August 08, 2014 - 7:40 am

    That's useful. I'm not trying to spin anything. Name one "plain vanilla" bill for a deeper look.

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  • TermiteAugust 08, 2014 - 7:46 am

    What a silly answer, rlw895. Spin, just as I predicted. You must be getting dizzy by now doing your Whirling Dervish routine.

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  • rlw895August 08, 2014 - 7:55 am

    You're diverting. You're also misusing the term "spin."

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  • rlw895August 08, 2014 - 7:56 am

    Certainly you source of numbers provides a favorite example. Or not?

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  • rlw895August 08, 2014 - 7:59 am


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  • TermiteAugust 08, 2014 - 7:25 am

    Do nothing SENATE! Harry Reid is sitting on a huge pile of legislation which includes plenty of "vanilla" bills. What Harry Reid and Obama really mean is that Congress has so far refused to pass legislation which exactly fits Obama's "fundamental transformation" scheme. Compromise to that pair of bad actors means "sit down, shut up, and do what Obama tells you to do." In the meantime, ordinary business in the country can just wait until Harry and Barry get their way.

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  • WilliamAugust 07, 2014 - 7:27 am

    The partisan libs like to paint everyone that they don't agree with as parroting FOXisms, it's no wonder because they parrot every stereotyping that the DNC and their controlled lame-stream create no matter how untrue it is. The do-everything House has passed a record 361 bills including many bi-partisan ones. Harry Reid has single handily blocked every singe one from ever coming to be even read let alone considered by the Senate. However Reid isn't our biggest problem, it's having an AWOL President whom uses the largely unknown Reid blockages to bash the GOP and fund raise off the stereotyping instead of doing what every other President has previously done, pick up the phone and even be persistent. This "President" would much rather fund raise, have a one week birthday party and vacation rather than showing up to work even for one day.

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  • JagAugust 07, 2014 - 7:43 pm

    Oh Mr. Bernstein you must be a lib yourself, OK your statement is (I know for a fact that there are members of both parties who are capable of reaching effective compromise) I assume you are correct but that would be your friends the liberal democrats and the left leaning Republicans (yes you read that correctly) I said the left leaning republicans, I actually love the fact that we have not extended un-employment insurance again and we don’t have an immigration bill. You want an immigration bill? OK fine close the boarders and send all the illegals home, there you got your bill so to answer you Yes doing nothing and blocking everything is MUCH better then letting your president having his way.

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