We Need to Change How We Measure Congress’ ‘Productivity’

Big brother rapidly passing a bunch of bills chips away at citizens’ freedom

The U.S. Capitol Building. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Complaints about a “do-nothing” Congress are a bit like lamenting that doctors aren’t performing enough amputations. Yet, again we’re being told that the Ryan-McConnell 115th Congress “will be the most unproductive in 164 years.”

Such complaints would make sense if the unproductive sector were Motor City, American farming or Silicon Valley. But far from cars, corn or computer software, what does Congress “produce”?

Laws generally (exceptions include “housekeeping” measures) constitute the governmental removal of freedoms; new taxes to rob the citizenry; and big-government programs on which to waste those fleeced funds.

This congressional “productivity” is why we have $4-trillion federal budgets, a $20-trillion national debt, $127 trillion in unfunded liabilities and so many federal laws that no one knows the precise number (they occupy at least 50 volumes totaling more than 23,000 pages—if you’re looking for summer reading).

It is true that the current Congress has been woefully inadequate on building the border wall, tax reform, repealing Dodd-Frank and, most notably, reforming health care. Yet the last two ambitions could be viewed as elimination more than production. In fact, part of the very reason for inaction on Obamacare is a desire for production; Congress refuses to simply repeal it—the legislators want to produce a replacement instead.

It’s also true that since congressional Republicans aren’t monolithic but include somewhat disparate factions—and since the establishment GOP is bent on opposing President Trump—upending leftist policy is far more difficult. Nonetheless, the do-something statist complaints reflect dangerous conditioning.

For example, political science professor David Faris writes at The Week that while Trump has signed more laws than Barack Obama had at this point in 2009 (43 vs. 40), “a majority of the bills signed by Trump thus far have been [only] one page long….”

Question: Are we better off with quasi-tax-code-length bills such as Obamacare, which Congressman John Conyers admitted was too complex, taxing, and time-consuming to read (before he happily and ignorantly voting for it)?

Faris admits that some of this brief legislation was “passed under the Congressional Review Act, a previously obscure statute that allows Congress to nullify recently enacted federal regulations. The CRA had been used just once before Trump took office, and yet 14 of the 43 bills signed into law by the president have been CRAs”—designed to roll back Obama-era regulations.

Faris laments this, but this is precisely what Trump voters elected Republicans to do.

Short, concise bills that eliminate laws and regulations and increase freedom are not a problem; they are the very stuff of good government.

Faris cedes that these one-page surgical strikes against statism are “not meaningless,” yet then states, “but the Voting Rights Act they are not.” Ah, vanity.

Just as too many judges reject their roles as umpires and want to birth historic activist precedent (how else to grace the history books?), virtually every president wants a “legacy,” and legislators love authoring ground-breaking bills. The problem?

As G.K. Chesterton observed, “Nine out of 10 of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes,” and author Jim Rohn noted that success is not doing extraordinary things, but “doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” Endeavors such as maintaining a military, securing the border, building roads, suppressing crime, conducting fair elections, upholding the rule of law, etc. aren’t new, sexy or titillating to utopians. Yet they’re the marks of a healthy republic. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to cease rolling over liberty and start embracing fundamental principles.

The do-nothing lament also ignores that the feds, and government itself, are not the end-all and be-all. Our Constitution essentially prescribes subsidiarity, the principle stating that the smallest possible unit of civilization that can perform a given task should do so. Most powers and roles are meant to lie with the states, so why bemoan a general lack of federal legislative productivity?

As to this, note that our system’s having three governmental branches and a bicameral legislature is meant to produce “gridlock,” which is a rather pejorative way of saying it’s designed to keep power dispersed, federal action limited and (in theory) liberty protected from those freedom-squelching things called laws.

Moreover, continually casting eyes toward government ignores that an even larger civilizational role belongs to society, where good is effected via customs, traditions and social codes.

That we have to go back 164 years—to when our government was far smaller—to find a Congress as “unproductive” as today’s tells the tale: A do-nothing legislature is a prerequisite for limited government. In contrast, repeatedly disgorging do-nothing drivel is to forge with foolishness an all-encompassing state.

One-hundred sixty-four years ago was also when the quintessentially American aphorism, “The best government is that which governs least” was first attributed (incorrectly) to Thomas Jefferson. Going from that to stressing government “productivity” means that we really, really are missing the point. We Need to Change How We Measure Congress’ ‘Productivity’