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The Do-Nothing Congress Prefers Theatrics Over Doing Its Job (Washington Examiner) December 6, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Stop everything, Game of Thrones is on. That phrase from households turning to the most popular television show of the year now applies to Congress as well.

Stop the legislative wheels from turning, no room for sideshows now, time to gather round for the latest political theater: the Trump Impeachment Show.

Not that Congress was doing much anyway. So far, in 2019, Congress has enacted only 70 laws, at least 10 of which were purely ceremonial. A typical two-year Congress, even in these leaner times, would enact 300-500 new laws so, 11 months in, this 116th Congress could easily go down in the record books as the least productive in 40 or 50 years. Throw in an impeachment trial in the Senate and an election next year, and we could have a record-setting do-nothing Congress.

Apparently, the public has noticed. A Gallup poll shows the approval rating for Congress at a meager 24%, with 72% disapproval. Either unaware of or unconcerned by the lack of public support, Democrats in the House have nevertheless proposed a $4,500 annual pay increase for members of Congress. While workers and businesses are doing more with less, Congress wants more for doing less.

Why has Congress become so unproductive?

For starters, a Congress that used to be led by powerful committee heads reviewing substantive legislation is essentially now driven by party leaders. The key legislative decisions are made by the majority and minority party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, not by the heads of once-powerful committees such as the budget or finance or appropriations committees. These political leaders often hold bills, sometimes in secret if possible, until they are certain they have the necessary votes in their party to pass them before springing them on the full legislature.

This leads to the next big problem: Congress no longer moves along bipartisan lines to enact legislation but instead relies increasingly on party-line votes. The most important legislation of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act, was passed on a purely party-line vote of Democrats, and the most significant legislation so far of the Trump administration, tax reform, was passed strictly by Republicans. You have to go back to the first term of George W. Bush to find a major piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind, with support from both parties. Overall, party unity voting has increased from about 60% in the 1970s to nearly 90% today.

Even before the impeachment hearings, Congress had become political theater. Members no longer deliberate and reach a compromise on important legislation, as had been done from the founding of the republic, but instead settle into their fixed party trenches, making speeches and taking only the votes that would help them win the next election. Public policy is no longer about finding the consent of the people or solving big problems.

Instead, the goal seems to have been borrowed from the late Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby.”

Now with the impeachment hearings, it has truly become a Game of Thrones, directed and produced by party leaders. There is no genuine investigation. Even the witnesses are mere props, used by the directors to make points everyone already knows as dramatically as possible. In all likelihood, we know the outcome as well. With widespread agreement on what Trump has done, it boils down to the debatable question of whether this constitutes an impeachable offense. The Democratic House will say yes, because that is their worldview and benefits their cause, and the Republican Senate trial will conclude no for the same reasons.

Game over, then, with important issues such as immigration, gun control, drug prices, and wasting infrastructure, all awaiting action. At the very least, Congress should catch up with the rest of America and learn to multitask.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

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