Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



December 2013

Most Prudent Congress Ever?

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Media Bias

USA today reported that the current Congress has hit “new productivity lows” (Hat-tip: Reason):

Congress is on track to beat its own low record of productivity, enacting fewer laws this year than at any point in the past 66 years.

It’s a continuing slide of productivity that began in 2011, after Republicans recaptured the House majority in the 2010 elections, and the ability to find common ground has eluded the two parties while the legislative to-do list piles up.

The 112th Congress, covering 2011-12, emerged as the least productive two-year legislating period on record, while 2013 is on track to become the least productive single year in modern history.

Stories such as this do a lot to illustrate the assumptions of journalists that don’t explicitly make it into their reporting (some might consider it, dare I say, bias). The obvious, and also foolish, assumption behind this rather typical approach to legislative reporting is the belief that laws are fundamentally positive in nature, and therefore the more the merrier. Put another way, the Congress which passes the most laws is also seen as the most productive.

We could challenge this assumption by highlighting the plethora of laws passed in recent years that have been anything but productive (Obamacare, Dodd Frank, etc.), but I don’t want to get into the legislative weeds. I’d rather just point out that the logic behind concern-trolling Congressional productivity is internally inconsistent. If, as they presume, legislation is de facto positive and productive, then we should expect the need for new legislation to decrease over time. Since the purpose for passing legislation is, or ought to be, to solve actual problems, there should be fewer and fewer things we need solving over time as more and more laws are passed. In which case, articles like this would not be written.

But the reality is that legislation is not always productive. Sometimes it fails to solve an issue, or creates more problems than it solves. This is why the same people who take the statist view of legislation still implicitly acknowledge there remain a great many problems to solve. The realization that legislation can be either productive or unproductive, rather, should caution against reacting to problems by rushing through legislation without due consideration of the full ramifications of any proposed solutions. Looked at this way, the same evidence USA Today used to declare the current Congress to have “the least productive single year in modern history” can be used to say that is has been the most prudent in modern history.

Obviously, it’s not really so simple. Contrary to the logic of the article, Congress does not operate in a vacuum. Laws must also be signed by the President before enacted into law. Fewer laws are thus to be expected in a split government, as the two branches will agree on fewer issues when controlled by different parties. In this way, we see in practice the theory of our system of checks and balances: it sometimes forces politicians into behaving prudently despite their best efforts and intentions to the contrary.