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Trying to split the Do-Nothing Congress

Are we looking at a "Do-Lots House" vs. a "Do-Little Senate"? No. The new GOP talking point is absurd.
The Capitol Building in Washington.
The Capitol Building in Washington.
Leading Republican lawmakers have struggled in recent months to defend Congress' record of ineptitude. As a simple matter of arithmetic, the last Congress was the least productive since clerks started keeping track nearly a century ago -- and the current Congress is significantly worse.
As we talked about last week, the GOP explanation for this has evolved over time. About a year ago, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried pure denial, saying it's "total nonsense" to say Congress is having a "historically unproductive" term. Soon after, Boehner switched gears, acknowledging reality, but saying failure is a good thing: Congress "ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal," he said, not by how many laws actually pass.
But as lawmakers' August recess enters its second week, the Republican line has clearly changed once more. Now the right is wholly invested in the notion that the GOP-led House is a law-passing machine, but it's that rascally Democratic Senate that's the problem. Reader Jamie McCarthy flagged this National Review piece, which echoed the new Republican talking points nicely.

This notion of a "do-nothing Congress" is yet another Democrat fabrication. In fact, America has a Republican Do-Lots House and a Democratic Do-Little Senate. Since January 2013, according to its Republican Conference, the Do-Lots House has adopted 347 bills that await votes in the Do-Little Senate. These include serious initiatives to reinvigorate the economy, reduce taxes, speed energy production, slice red tape, expand school choice, extend the flexibility of workers' hours, enhance federal accountability, and more.

See? House Republicans love governing! They're passing bills all the time! It's no wonder GOP House members are trying to work the phrase "Do-Nothing Senate" into public conversation.
The point, of course, isn't subtle. Congress is incredibly unpopular; the federal legislative process effectively broke the moment House Republicans took the majority in January 2011; and GOP officials are eager to avoid blame. Sure, Republicans refuse to compromise, refuse to consider concessions, reflexively oppose just about everything President Obama is for (even when he agrees with them), and are willing put aside their own legislative priorities (tax reform, immigration reform, et al), but that's no reason to hold the GOP responsible for Washington's policymaking paralysis, right?
There are, of course, a few problems with the thesis.
First, desperate spin notwithstanding, the House always passes more bills than the Senate. Philip Bump explained last week, "In 11 of the past 19 Congresses -- more than half -- more than 300 bills were waiting for Senate action by the time the Congress completed its work." There's no great mystery to this: as a procedural matter, it's just easier to pass bills in the lower chamber than the so-called "cooling saucer."
Second, Senate legislating dropped considerably starting in 2007 -- the year after a Democratic wave pushed Senate Republicans into the minority -- when GOP lawmakers started filibustering literally every bill of any consequence. Republican abuses drastically reduced the institution's productivity, and this continues to be a dramatic institutional problem, though this clearly doesn't support the GOP p.r. offensive. (If it's a "Do-Nothing Senate," it's not in Republicans' interest to draw attention to their own party's role in creating the problem.)
And finally, many of the House-passed bills awaiting Senate action aren't serious attempts at legislating. They're far-right bills -- see the recently passed "border" bill, for example, which House Republican leaders didn't even want to consider -- crafted to satisfy the GOP's far-right base. For many of these measures, Republican leaders never had any intention of seeing them become law -- the point was to "send a message."
Indeed, the GOP-led House voted to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act several dozen times, knowing in advance their efforts were pointless. The notion that this is proof of a "Do-Lots House" is plainly ridiculous -- self-indulgent posturing isn't the same thing as governing.
Imagine a scenario in which House Republicans and Senate Democrats worked together on a legislative priority, found some common ground, and accepted a compromise. Then imagine the GOP-led House passed the bipartisan, bicameral bill, only to see the Democratic-led Senate sit on its hands and waste time on extraneous priorities.
In this scenario, Republicans and their media allies would be right to complain. But given that this imaginary scenario is fanciful to the point of comedy, the entire talking point is simply absurd. Will some conservatives buy it? Probably, but that doesn't make it true.