Getting nothing for $5 Billion

$5 Billion!

Fifty-some laws. Most were meaningless.

That’s the Congressional record for 2012.

Largely dominated by the newly energized “Tea Party,” this Congress came to Washington two years ago with great expectations and promises to change Washington.

For sure, a few enormous changes have occurred since President Obama was elected four years ago. On his way out of office, President Bush sought and received $700 billion to bail out the big banks. President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus saved the auto industry and propped up state and local governments hit by the Great Recession. Obama also pushed through his signature health care law.
All that happened four years ago, before this Congress came into office.

Since then, nothing.

The Legislative Branch Appropriation now exceeds $5 billion per year, or more than $10 billion for each two-year session of Congress.

In the last two years, gridlock has only worsened and any pretense of compromise has disappeared.
In 1948, President Truman railed against a “do nothing” Congress. That Congress passed over 900 laws, relatively normal for the times. President Truman’s real complaint was not about how much Congress did. He simply opposed the laws Congress passed. He vetoed 75 of them, and Congress overrode his veto six times.

In more recent decades, Congress has passed approximately 400 new laws per session. This Congress has passed about 135 new laws, about eighty in 2011 and fifty-some this year. That’s 15% of what President Truman’s “do-nothing” Congress accomplished.

President Obama has vetoed only two laws, both three years ago. The last time a president vetoed only two laws was in 1881 by President James Garfield who was in office for only six months before being assassinated. Why so few vetoes with a President and Congress at odds with each other? Congress can’t get anything done. Congress has passed nothing for the President to sign into law or to veto.

So, what taxpayers get for $5 billion?

18 laws naming or renaming buildings.

25 non-controversial laws that did things such as approving negotiated real estate deals with states and cities, maintenance on the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and increased prosecution of smugglers who build or finance tunnels into the US.

A handful of existing laws were extended for another year such as this year’s Social Security tax cut and rehiring temporary bankruptcy judges to handle the huge backlog of cases.

Five laws fall into the genuinely “new” or “big” category. Five? FIVE!!! Several were mostly about jobs — building highways and airports and reducing regulations on small businesses. Another prohibited Congressmen from trading on insider information.

That’s $5 billion.

That’s not to say that Congress hasn’t been busy. For the past few decades, approximately 8,000 to 9,000 new bills have been introduced during each two year term of Congress. This Congress introduced over 10,000, more than 1,000 more than ever before. In years past, Congress passed about 5% of laws introduced. This year, less than 1.5%.

Most of those 10,000 bills were mere grandstanding, intended to make a statement or enhance a voting record for re-election purposes. (I know. I worked in the Senate for three years and did just that.) For example, this Congress introduced dozens of bills to repeal Obama’s health care law and voted three dozen times, knowing that they would fail.

Even so, this Congress worked fewer hours. Most Congresses are in session about 2,500 hours every two years. This Congress was in session for 1,900 hours, and has declared that the year over, awaiting the election.

Many want Congress do less, to pass fewer laws. Some suggest a part-time Congress. Maybe that’s what we have, though we pay for the full freight.

This Congress kicked the can down the road as never before, but it also painted itself into a corner. Next year will be different by necessity and isn’t going to be pretty.

Expiring Bush tax cuts will force tax changes, like it or not.

The debt ceiling will be reached again and will require action, like it or not.

Automatic, but unidentified, $1.2 billion in spending cuts that Congress passed last year go into effect in January. Those changes will not happen silently or easily. And may be undone.

Next year, Congress has nowhere to hide and much to do.

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