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October 21, 2014

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The do-even-less Congress

Congress is a joke. But the joke isn’t funny — unless, of course, you’re into dark humor.

The entire legislative body has been consumed by kvetching, at the expense of actual legislating. And the numbers that highlight this reality are simply atrocious.

According to a Pew Research Center report issued July 31:

“As of Wednesday the current Congress had enacted 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over an equivalent time span. And only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation, under our deliberately broad criteria (no post-office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other purely ceremonial laws).”

President Barack Obama has felt it necessary to veto only two bills since becoming president. That is fewer than any president since James Garfield in 1881, who vetoed none. But Garfield’s term lasted only 200 days before his death, and he was struck more than two months earlier by an assassin’s bullets.

Part of the reason for the dearth of vetoes is the dearth of legislation making it to the president’s desk. And this is in part because of the ever-shrinking periods of time that Congress is in session.

As a New York Times article declared in January, “The ‘do nothing’ Congress is preparing to do even less.”

The House of Representatives is scheduled to be in session even fewer days than last year’s depressingly low 135 days. That’s right: The House is underperforming even last session’s underperformance.

In December, The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters crunched the numbers and found:

“Not counting brief, pro forma sessions, the House was in session for 942 hours, an average of about 28 hours each week that it conducted business in Washington.”

Tell that to the average American full-time worker busting his or her hump working more than 1,700 hours a year. And the average American is laboring for only a fraction of the $174,000 most members of Congress bring home.

The Senate didn’t fare much better than the House in Peters’ analysis:

“By a similar measure, the Senate was near its recorded lows for days on the floor. Senators have spent 99 days casting votes this year, close to the recent low point for a nonelection year in 1991, when there were 95 voting days.”

And yet, as much as the president has been criticized for his recent fundraising efforts, members of Congress are making the time to do the same. As ABC News reported last week:

“Republicans and Democrats in Congress are holding at least 100 fundraisers in Washington in the days leading up to the August recess, according to fundraising lists obtained by ABC News, with senators who aren’t even on the ballot in 2014 holding events.”

Part of the problem with Washington is a manifestation of polarization.

A June Pew study found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” And that polarized public is represented by an increasingly polarized Congress. According to political scientists Christopher Hare, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction.”

The polarization has bastardized the meaning of compromise. The June Pew poll found that the more liberal people were, the more they preferred politicians who compromise, and the more conservative Americans were, the more they preferred politicians who stick to their positions. And yet, a majority of those who were consistently liberal and those who were consistently conservative thought that an ideal compromise was tantamount to their getting more of what they wanted than the other side.

There is no longer a real middle.

This is not to say that there is some equivalency between left and right when it comes to hostility and intransigence. As I see it, what middle remains has been dragged so far right that it doesn’t feel like a real middle anymore. America in general may be becoming more liberal on a variety of social issues, but there is a strident and forceful push to dial back the clock from a new strain of conservative politicians and the people who support them.

There is still time for this Congress to get more things done. As Pew pointed out: “Among the past seven Congresses, between 39 percent and 59 percent of all the substantive laws they passed came in the last five months of their respective two-year terms; the average was 49 percent.”

But I’m not holding my breath. Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress. Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.

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