The Do-Nothing Congress
So far, House Republicans are honoring their pledge not to pass any major legislation—and gaining popularity for it.
There are small, loud signs on the desks outside of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's offices. The "Cantor rule" is written on all of them. It reads: "Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy? Are they reducing spending? Are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding liberty? If not, why am I doing it. … Why are WE doing it?"
Cantor is not the first Republican to describe his job like this. After November's election, Newt Gingrich sent Republicans wall charts with the legend "What have I done today to help create jobs and paychecks?" Sixteen years ago, Gingrich was in almost the same position Cantor is in now. (He was actually speaker, not the No. 2 Republican.) His party had taken over the House of Representatives. It could make policy. It could, actually, pass any damn bill it wanted.
There is an important difference: Cantor's Congress isn't passing as much as Gingrich's. It's not passing as much as the Democratic House of 2007, the one led by Nancy Pelosi. When Gingrich and Pelosi came into power, they came bearing thick legislative agendas, like Moses descending Sinai. Gingrich's Republicans promised votes on 10 items within 100 days—and got them. Pelosi's Democrats promised votes on six bills in the first 100 hours of power—and got them done in 87.
The new Republicans promised much less. In December, Cantor announced that every two weeks of House business would be followed by a weeklong recess. "We had freshmen who said we should be here less, a lot less than we have been for the past two years," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, who helped put together the schedule. In his first speech on becoming speaker, John Boehner promised that the next Congress would move slowly. "We will dispense with the conventional wisdom that bigger bills are always better," he said, "that fast legislating is good legislating."
This set up the argument that Republicans used over a slow first month: Inaction was preventing worse things from happening. (There was no action in Congress for one week because of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but this only delayed the two-on-one-off schedule.) Repeal bills were good for the economy. On Wednesday, they applauded as the Repeal of the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act got a vote in the Senate.
"Senate Republicans have kept their promise," said Boehner. But the repeal failed, as everyone expected it would. When he announced the spending limits in his first budget as chairman of the Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said Republicans had "voted to cut trillions of dollars in new government spending by advancing a repeal of the President's health care law." They had, but they also knew that repeal wouldn't go further, so why did that count?
The answer: They are taking an approach to legislating completely antithetical to what President Obama proposed in his State of the Union speech. They don't want Congress to "do big things." Government, in general, should not do big things.
This is the new normal, and it's not how this stuff usually works. In power, Gingrich was captivated by a concept that he still talks about—pushing legislation that 60 percent or 70 percent of voters could support. This was the impetus for the $500-per-child tax credit, a bill that required the CBO to calculate the cost of federal mandates, welfare reform, and—to name two items that died in the Senate—term limits and a balanced budget amendment. In 2007, Democrats wanted to kick off with supermajority support for popular bills, such as an increase in the minimum wage and implementation of the 9/11 Commission's final recommendations.
This year, Republicans have kicked things off with repeal bills. There are no bold new ideas. There is just dismantling of Democratic ideas. And the result of this, so far, has been resilient Republican popularity. At the end of January, a Gallup poll gave Republicans their first favorable approval ratings since 2005, when their Bush-era slide began. Since the election, Rasmussen Reports polls have put the number of Americans identifying as Republicans close to the number of Americans who identify as Democrats. I asked Scott Rasmussen why this was.
"The Republicans are helped by low expectations," said Rasmussen. "Hardly anybody expects them to actually cut spending. The GOP is also helped by the fact that Democrats still control the White House and the Senate. You cite the lack of legislative accomplishment. Remember, by a 3-to-1 margin, voters believe that no matter how bad something is, Congress can always make it worse. That's true regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. Lack of action may be a plus in some eyes."
If that's what voters are after, they're going to have a fun couple of years. The first bipartisan bill that might actually reach the president's desk didn't come until Wednesday, when the Senate approved an amendment to kill a new requirement for businesses to fill out health care tax forms. Most of the rest of the legislative action in Congress is happening in two areas. One: budget cuts that Democrats, fitting comfortably into an old role, will decry as monstrous. Two: repeal bills, bills that would tie up federal regulators, and other items that can't survive the Senate or a presidential veto. The forecast through 2013 is creative destruction.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of John Boehner and Eric Cantor by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.