Chastising a session of Congress as “unproductive” due to gridlock has become a sort of tradition for statist media. Whenever a new year roles around, columnists and editorial boards begin wagging their figurative fingers at Congress for failing to meet some arbitrary threshold of activity, before sagely calling on the next session to do better.
Examples are easy to find. The Washington Post editors last week bemoaned that, “According to one measure — the raw number of initiatives passed — [the 113th Congress] just barely beat the 112th, which set a modern-day low well below that of the do-nothing Congress Harry Truman beat up in 1948,” before concluding, “Suffice it to say that the past four years have been pretty dismal on Capitol Hill.”
Politico‘s Jonathan Topaz shrieked, “this Congress has been singularly unproductive, shutting down most government functions for two weeks last fall, passing the fewest bills in memory and lurching from crisis to crisis, to the great ire of most American voters.” Christina Marco at The Hill similarly fretted that, “the last two sessions of Congress with divided government are the two most unproductive in history in terms of bills cleared by both chambers.”
These arguments are not new. The same stories were written last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. They are also fallacious, suffering from flaws both logical and methodological.
It makes no sense to count the renaming of a post office as functionally equivalent to a reorganization of the entire health care system, for instance. And even if we accept that raw legislative output tells us something useful, comparing figures over time is highly misleading, as one Congress might prefer to deal with multiple issues per bill, while another prefers one issue at a time.
The whole exercise comes off as little more than poorly disguised concern trolling, where those with ideological axes to grind seek to discredit opponents without having to engage in the messiness of debating what policies are right or wrong.
The entire premise that the measure of a Congress is found in the quantity of legislation passed is absurd. What matters is the legislature’s impact on the country, measured in whether the economy is growing and liberty is expanding. If those things happen, it shouldn’t matter whether Congress passes 1,000 laws or 100. Or even zero.
When considering only national impact rather than internal Congressional processes, both the 112th and 113th Congresses that were maligned as unproductive did surprisingly well. Through sequestration they halted the explosive growth of government, and they also gave the economy room to finally begin recovery.
The sequester was passed by the 112th Congress, and its spending limits were reaffirmed again in the 113th after a hard fought battle that included the much-maligned government shutdown. Thanks to its spending restrictions, government largely stopped growing after the 2009 binge. Federal spending as a share of GDP has declined from a peak of almost 25% in 2009 to just above 20% today, which is still about one percent above the post-WWII average and yet further from the 18% at the end of Bill Clinton’s term.
This is in stark contrast to what CBO predicted in its 2011 forecast. They expected this year’s spending to be half a trillion dollars higher than it is. That difference is attributable to the work of the last two Congresses in opposing the Obama administration’s agenda.
As government slowed its expansion, the economy finally started moving in the right direction in 2014. Once the government stopped paying so many people not to work by allowing long-term unemployment benefits to expire, the labor market improved dramatically. Not that we should pop the champagne bottles. The labor market participation rate is still historically low, and the long term fiscal prognosis remains dire thanks to the unsustainable paths of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Still, the economic impact of the recent Congress appears to be a net positive. On the other hand, its impact on liberty is more subtle. It’s to be cheered not so much for what it did, but for what it didn’t do.
Unsurprisingly, major initiatives are less frequent in times of divided government. That’s been true even more so in recent years, as Harry Reid’s unusually iron-fisted reign of the Senate ensured nothing politically inconvenient would ever approach the President’s desk. Nevertheless, the period compares favorably to more recent legislatures marked by high activity, where Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and FATCA all brought about serious curtailments on liberty in addition to their heavy burdens on the economy.
Insofar as it has avoided these kinds of massive, overly complicated and invasive initiatives, the recent Congress can be considered an improvement on the liberty front. Gridlock, contra the do-something fetishists, ought for this reason to be considered a feature rather than a bug. It forces the legislative process to be more deliberative, and pits politicians against one another as a check against their worst impulses.
But there is room for improvement in the new Congress. While doing nothing is often preferable to doing something, there is at least one kind of action that could produce very positive outcomes. Namely, Congress should begin undoing bad and invasive laws and abolishing unnecessary and duplicative federal agencies.
Much of the federal leviathan is on auto-pilot. Teams of bureaucrats work to carry out laws to solve problems that no longer exist. Others, like the 15 employees across six different offices that until last year wrote the annual report on Dog and Cat Fur Protection, are responsible for producing reports that no one reads on obscure topics once important to this or that member of Congressman who is no longer in office. After a bit of prodding, the Dog and Cat Fur Protection report was finally eliminated in the last Congress, but thousands more useless reports remain, and more were added than subtracted in the previous year.
There’s so much low-hanging fruit that entire federal agencies could be eliminated. There are long lists of agencies that do almost nothing productive, or whose work is largely duplicative. The problem is that there’s typically very little political incentive to unravel even wasteful and pointless government. As Ronald Reagan observed in his famous A Time for Choosing speech, “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
Creating a new agency or department is an easy way for politicians to demonstrate that they are solving problems. This translates to votes. And votes are what motivate politicians. Cleaning up the outdated programs of the last generation’s elected panderers is less rewarding, and so doesn’t get done.
There’s also the collective action problem that economists describe as diffuse costs and concentrated benefits. Even though the total costs of waste can add up to a lot, taken individually any single program usually costs the average taxpayer mere pennies, because the cost is dispersed among the entire taxpayer public. On the other hand the government employees, contractors or industries where benefits are concentrated, while smaller in population, have greater incentive to protect their pet programs than does a taxpayer to demand its abolishment. So they make their voices heard, while the public worries about more painful problems. The result is the non-stop accrual of new programs without any trimming of the old.
There’s no easy way to circumvent this problem. The public must constantly pressure politicians to shrink government and eliminate waste. But that’s a tall order. In the meantime, at least we can count on gridlock to stop the problem from getting worse for the time being.
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