Please, Congress, Do Much Less

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You can’t swing a dead cat by the tail these days without hitting a news story about the lack of legislation issuing from the 113th Congress. From CNN to McClatchy to NPR to the L.A. Times, the air is thick with pieces lamenting that the 113th makes “the infamous ‘do-nothing Congress’ of the late 1940s look downright prolific.” 

Apparently we’re all supposed to feel really bad about that.

Before the holiday break, Congress sent just 70 bills to the president’s desk. That compares — unfavorably, we are given to understand — with the 395 bills passed by the 80th Congress, whose supposed indolence Harry Truman ran against. It even compares unfavorably to the 112th Congress, which led to only 231 new laws.

The censorious pieces never stop to explain precisely why Congress should be judged according to the number of bills it passes. That’s simply assumed. This is one of those telltale signs of media bias that are always cropping up, if you keep your eyes open. (Here’s another: Run a Google News search for the terms “economic inequality” and “economic liberty.” The former shows up more than 50 times as often. Guess why.)

Unpack the assumption behind the stories about congressional productivity, and you find a bias toward statism: the notion that government action is inherently good, and that more government action is inherently better — and that this is true as an analytic proposition, entirely separate from whatever a particular government action might entail.

Which is pretty funny, when you stop to think.

After all, the press has spent the past couple of years cranking out endless horror stories about the last major piece of legislation Congress passed — the Budget Control Act, which led to the sequester. It also has written a great deal about the many terrible problems caused by the last major law before that: the Affordable Care Act. Yet now we’re supposed to yearn for more omnibus legislation?

Before the Obamacare-disaster stories began piling up, the media cranked out a lot of snark over the House’s repeated votes (47 of them at last count) to repeal Obamacare. None of those bills made it to the president’s desk. But if passing legislation is the measure of congressional success, then all 47 of them should have — right?

Back in June, the House passed what the AP called “a far-reaching anti-abortion bill ... that conservatives saw as a milestone in their 40-year campaign against legalized abortion and Democrats condemned as yet another example of the GOP war on women.” If the Senate had gone along with that proposal, would advocates of activist government be more happy now — or less?

When critics of Congress insist it ought to do something, they perhaps do not mean bills like that. What they want, they would tell you, is for Congress to address real problems.

But everybody has a different idea of what the real problems are, which is a problem itself. And even when Congress tackles what most people agree is a real problem, its proposed solution often can prove more problematic than the problem it was designed to confront.

Take online piracy. When counterfeiters sell ersatz versions of software such as the popular Rosetta Stone language-teaching program, they steal money and jobs from legitimate, tax-paying companies — and the people who work for them. Online piracy robs everybody from big-budget Hollywood studios to small indie rock bands. It needs to stop.

Congress’ answer? The Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA — a 2011 measure that, according to critics, could have shut down entire swaths of the Internet on the slightest pretext. Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, Tumblr, and scads of other online portals fired up protest drives, petitions — even “American Censorship Day” — to oppose the measure. A million blogs erupted in self-righteous fury. Hacktivist groups launched denial-of-service attacks against SOPA supporters, effectively committing online criminal acts to protest legislation aimed at stopping online criminality.

The critics won the day. Given the choice between SOPA and Congress doing nothing, they preferred Congress do nothing. No bill got passed. According to today’s conventional wisdom, this was a great loss.

True, the country faces many other pressing issues: Unemployment. Poverty. Health care. Immigration reform. Crime and violence. Educational mediocrity. Crushing federal debt. Soaring college costs. And so on.

But what makes those who demand a more active federal government think it will produce the right solutions — or even stop exacerbating the problems in the first place? Why the apparent assumption that a government which has given us the sequester, Obamacare, SOPA, and so on — a government that thinks subsidizing college will bring the price down; a government that thinks we can change Cuba by imposing sanctions and change Iran by lifting them — will suddenly start doing everything right?

Even a dead cat should know better than that. 

Contact A. Barton Hinkle at (804) 649-6627 or bhinkle@timesdispatch.com.

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