David R. Henderson  

What Has Congress Ever Done for Us?

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I've been catching up on Wall Street Journal issues that piled up over the summer. One particularly good unsigned editorial (the Journal calls these "Review and Outlook") was the July 19 (July 20 print edition) editorial titled "What Has Congress Ever Done for Us?"

Here's a slice:

The talk radio crowd has so fed the narrative of GOP "betrayal" in Washington that even many Republicans believe Congress has accomplished nothing since they took the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. The truth is that while the GOP Congress can't match the Romans [in the Monty Python skit about what the Romans have done for us], it has achieved far more than the critics claim.

Here are some specifics:
Start with everything the GOP Congress has prevented. Universal pre-K, gun regulation, a $15 national minimum wage, an ObamaCare bailout for insurers, equal pay regulation, more disclosure of campaign donations, "free" community college, a new "infrastructure bank," closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, among many others. President Obama proposed each of those, often more than once, but they vanished faster than Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign thanks to the GOP Congress.

Other than preventing the closing of the Gitmo prison, these were good accomplishments.

Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, often talks about "low-information voters." He uses the term as a putdown of people who generally vote Democrat. That many of his listeners don't know about these accomplishments suggests that they also are low-information voters.

Of course, that's a problem with the political system in general. People simply have little or no incentive to get information.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Rich Berger writes:

These are largely negative accomplishments. The Republicans had little stomach for returning the budgeting process to relative sanity after the Democrats ballooned spending in FY 2009 and rolled everything into one spending bill, year after year. Each year, the Dems dared the Republicans to stop them by "shutting down the government" and each year the Republicans folded under the pressure of the media. The Republicans are deathly afraid that they will be called names, even though the "shutdowns" have not harmed them.

And the Democrats have the temerity to proudly proclaim that they have cut the deficit!

BC writes:

@Rich Berger: "These are largely negative accomplishments."

Those are some of the most important ones. When government is blocked from interfering, people are free to improve their lives.

One way of measuring the GOP's congressional accomplishments is to compare against the case when the Democrats controlled Congress. When the Dems last controlled Congress, we ended up with Obamacare, stimulus, Dodd-Frank,.... (Aside: tellingly though, no immigration reform, even though Obama "guaranteed" to support and promote a bill in his first year. Hmm...)

Phil writes:

To do something requires some positive action. Congress did not take action to block those things; Congress has been unable to do anything (including the most rudimentary business of government, such as passing routine appropriations). This cannot be viewed as an accomplishment. It is cherry picking incompetence and re-coloring it as accomplishment. Boo!

Mico writes:

When you're in power you make progress toward your goals, when I'm in power neither of us make progress toward our goals.

Defeat on the installment plan.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Phil,
Congress did not take action to block those things
Is that literally true? Are you saying that that they didn’t even vote on any of these things? If so, that WSJ editorial is misleading.
@Mico,
When you're in power you make progress toward your goals, when I'm in power neither of us make progress toward our goals.
Good point. And it is defeat on the installment plan. My point is simply that Congress achieves something by blocking something bad. You’re not disagreeing with that; you’re making a good point. But my point is that few people are aware of how much bad policy Congress blocked.

Thaomas writes:

But in none of these cases did they deal with the underlying issues

OK they blocked a 15 minimum wage, but what did they do to find another way to increase the incomes of low income workers?

The blocked an infrastructure bank but what did they do to get government to invest in projects that have a positive return on investment?

Take a lesson from ACA. Health insurance was an issue in 2000-2008. Did Republicans enact the health insurance plan that they now want instead of ACA?

Delay good solutions long enough and you'll get bad solutions.

BC writes:

@Thaomas, blocking the $15 minimum wage allowed low-income workers to keep their jobs. That was better than any jobs-creation program because it didn't require any taxpayer spending. The number of jobs created equals the number of workers currently making less than $15/hr. Blocking the infrastructure bank allowed the private sector to spend and gain benefits from money that would otherwise go to the infrastructure bank. That's like creating the benefits of an entitlement program without raising taxes or adding to the debt. The ACA caused people to lose insurance that they liked and could afford. Thus, merely blocking the ACA, or legislation like it, in the 2000-2008 period had the effect of providing affordable health care to people during that period. Blocking bad legislation deals with the "underlying issues" of the unseen, negative consequences.

@Mico, your point would be a good one in talking about the period when Bush was president and Republicans controlled Congress. However, Republicans were not "in power" in 2010-2016. They were sharing power with Obama. They did pass multiple Obamacare repeals, but Obama vetoed them. If the opposition is in power (White House *and* Congress) some of the time, and you share power the other times, then you will indeed suffer defeat on the installment plan.

Steve Schow writes:

Contrary to some commenters I think society generally undervalues "negative action" accomplishments. How often do people shout "Well we have to do something!?" and the result is the Patriot Act or similar. We need level heads to shoot down the fever dreams of legislators responding to crisis.

I see it as a similar problem to publication bias in academia. Only P less than 0.05 results get published so we are biased towards thinking that there aren't 100 negative hypotheses for every 1 positive one. I wish somebody would start a journal that published theories that DIDN'T work, so they could be avoided (or tweaked) in the future.

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