Two of Washington’s best Congress-watchers—AEI’s Norm Ornstein and Brookings’s Thomas Mann—recently released a list of five myths about the 112th Congress. Here is my short summary of each myth:
Myth #1: The 112th Congress was as bad as the 80th “do-nothing” Congress during the Truman era.
The 80th Congress passed 906 laws, including the consequential Marshall Plan. It also reorganized our national security apparatus and created the Defense Department and the National Security Council. The 112th, in contrast, passed fewer than 250 laws and had no major legislation comparable to the Marshall Plan.
Myth #2: President Obama wasn’t adept at working with Congress.
Recent talk bemoaning a lack of presidential leadership in Congressional negotiations is nonsense. Leadership is contextual: If you asked LBJ to negotiate in today’s congressional environment, he would be bewildered and frustrated. President Obama faced extreme opposition that previous presidents had not encountered.
Myth #3: Boehner was the big loser.
The Speaker’s problem was a lack of followership, not leadership. Many members of his caucus were more worried about a primary challenge to their right than pressure from House leadership, making it difficult if not impossible to control their voting behavior. Boehner’s success in passing the Senate’s fiscal cliff deal was an example of good leadership despite strong headwinds.
Myth #4: Debt-limit debacles will become business as usual in Congress.
While Republicans effectively used the debt ceiling to extract spending cuts in 2011, they will be unable to do so in the future for three reasons. First, President Obama has said that he will no longer negotiate on the debt ceiling. Second, the business and financial communities are speaking up about their opposition to debt ceiling brinksmanship. Third, the public is more aware of the potentially catastrophic consequences of not raising the ceiling.
Myth #5: The 113th Congress will be as unproductive as the 112th.
The 2012 election showed that mindless opposition to the president’s agenda would not result in electoral success, so the Republican incentive for opposing the president at all times has been ameliorated. Moreover, the election provided an unexpected opening for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Other events have created opportunities to craft bipartisan laws on energy production and gun control. And if Washington can reach just one more round of spending cuts and revenue increases totaling $1 trillion, our debt-to-GDP ratio will stabilize over the medium term, allowing lawmakers to focus on questions of economic growth, health care delivery, and finance reform.
Be sure to read Ornstein and Mann’s full article for more detail, and check out their book on the subject of Congress, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.