Just over the last month or so, Congress has successfully completed some noteworthy tasks. Lawmakers overcame some important differences to approve a budget plan, appropriations bills, and a farm bill. The House yesterday raised the debt ceiling through the rest of the year and the Senate hopes to do the same later today.
One might be tempted to look at this flurry of activity and feel some optimism about legislative prospects in the coming months. But it’s probably best to start lowering expectations – the recent progress isn’t the start of Congress’ constructive period; it’s the end.
With the debt limit raised, a budget passed, and the funds appropriated, Congress will have largely cleared its decks – though for what is still unclear.As lawmakers head into Presidents Day recess, they have few big-ticket legislative aspirations this year, only a few accomplishments, and plenty of time to campaign.“That’s what our leadership said—if we get past this one, we’re done until the election,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican. Indeed, for a collection of lawmakers who already have been criticized as one of the least productive in history, there seems to be little urgency to turn that notion around.
Looking ahead, one House Democratic aide told National Journal, “The rest is filler.”
Just a few days into the new year, the New York Times reported that House Republican leaders had already narrowed their focus for all of 2014: passing a farm bill, funding the government, raising the debt ceiling, and “agreeing on a law authorizing water projects.”
It’s not quite the middle of February, but three out of these four measures – bills that used to be considered routine, almost mundane governance – are already done.
Three years have passed since House Republicans rode an electoral wave to majority status, and since that time, they’ve racked up exactly zero major legislative accomplishments. By all appearances, the fourth year won’t be any more productive; Congress will break its own record for fewest bills passed into law; and few seem especially surprised.
Isn’t there a threat of a voter backlash? No, probably not.
Remember, after the 1996 Republican shutdown, Congress started legislating quite a bit, in part because lawmakers feared a voter backlash and hoped some accomplishments would help them keep their jobs.
In 2014, House GOP leaders are prepared to gamble that voters won’t much care. In fact, the working assumption seems to be that the exact opposite is true – actually trying to govern could be contentious and difficult, alienating some voters, while possibly even making President Obama look better.
So why bother? Gerrymandered district lines will help shield House Republicans from public frustrations, and voter expectations are so low already, few will be shocked when members of Congress have nothing to show for another two years of “work.”
Americans saw a “do-nothing Congress” in 2011 and 2012. The current Congress may end up doing even less.