Wonkbook: Is this the laziest Congress ever?

July 2, 2013

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(Photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

Six months into its term, there's little evidence that the 113th Congress will be the worst Congress ever. But they might be the laziest.

On Monday, simply by doing nothing, they allowed the interest rate on student loans to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That might be permissible if they were busy with more important things, like inventing a cure for cancer that's also a source of endless clean energy. But they're not even working this week.

The 112th Congress passed 220 laws. That's the fewest of any Congress since we began keeping track in 1948. But the 113th Congress is on track to pass even fewer laws than that. "Just 15 bills have become law this year, compared to 23 over the same period in 2011," writes Dashiel Bennett at the Atlantic Wire. It's the do-nothingest Congress ever!

That doesn't make it the worst Congress ever. In fact, it doesn't even make it the worst Congress lately. Looking back at my 14 reasons the 112th Congress is one of the worst congresses ever, the 113th still has a ways to go. For instance, they haven't derailed the recovery and nearly crashed the global economy, as the 112th managed to do during the debt-ceiling shenanigans of 2011. And that list doesn't even include sequestration, which the 112th created and didn't manage to avert. The 113th Congress has inflicted a bit of damage by doing nothing -- those student loans being a great example -- but the 112th Congress almost blew up the world through gridlock.

Another contender to the crown would be the 107th and 108th Congresses. Here, the story isn't gridlock leading to bad policy, but congressional action leading to bad policy.  These congresses got us into wars with Iraq and Afghanistan without paying for them, passed the Bush tax cuts without paying for them, passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit without paying for it, completely missed the housing bubble, and much more.

By contrast, the 113th Congress simply isn't doing much. Sure, they're less popular than dirt mixed with mud, but the 112th Congress was less popular than Nickelback! But thus far, the 113th has avoided shutdowns and debt-ceiling brinksmanship and they've managed to avoid leading us into any new, completely unpaid-for wars. So...hooray?

But they've still got a year-and-a-half on the clock. That's time they could use to pass immigration reform and secure their reputation as a Congress that did something big and important and overdue. Or it's time they could use to learn some tricks from their predecessors and shut the government down or nearly breach the debt ceiling.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 43 percent. That's the share of the uninsured who were unfamiliar with the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act.

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: U.S. auto exports are growing, breaking 1 million.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) immigration reform's rumbles; 2) fleshing out marriage equality; 3) it's still the economy; 4) abortion law is changing; and 5) regulating power plants.

1) Top story: Give us your tired, your poor...and your brilliant?

Foreign-worker provisions stir debate in tech community. "The pitched arguments of both sides, which are likely to resurface in the House when it takes up its version of an immigration overhaul, cloud a complicated reality. There is little empirical evidence to suggest that foreign engineers displace American engineers as a whole. If anything, one recent study suggests, the growth of immigrant workers in American companies helps younger American technical workers — more of them are hired and at higher-paying jobs — but has no noticeable consequences, good or bad, on older workers." Somini Sengupta in The New York Times.

GOP groups offer lawmakers political cover. "Their message: if we ever want to take back the White House, we have to stop devouring our own. As the party assesses its chances for the 2016 presidential campaign, many Republican strategists believe that they need as robust a primary field as possible, with more than just one or two viable potential contenders. A messy fight over a subject as touchy as illegal immigration is a prospect many Republican leaders are eager to avoid." Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times.

@daveweigel: Jeb Bush's role in the immigration debate -- just blathering, basically -- probably less harmful w/ the base than Rubio's.

Immigration deal would boost defense manufacturers. "The border security plan the Senate approved last week includes unusual language mandating the purchase of specific models of helicopters and radar equipment for deployment along the U.S.-Mexican border, providing a potential windfall worth tens of millions of dollars to top defense contractors...Watchdog groups and critics said that these and other detailed requirements would create a troubling end-run around the competitive bidding process and that they are reminiscent of old-fashioned earmarks — spending items that lawmakers insert into legislation to benefit specific projects or recipients. In the past several years, Congress has had a moratorium on earmarks." Matea Gold in The Washington Post.

Immigration and entrepreneurship. "[I]s it true that immigrants are unusually entrepreneurial? The data available suggest that yes, immigrants are overrepresented among America’s business founders and innovators...In 2010, the business formation rate per month among immigrants was 0.62 percent, meaning that of every 100,000 non-business-owning immigrants, 620 started a business each month. The comparable rate for nonimmigrants was 0.28 percent (or 280 out of every of 100,000 non-business-owning adults)." Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

@mattyglesias: Step 1: Kill VRA. Step 2: Kill immigration reform. Step 3: Find a way to alienate old white people. #strategy

PONNURU: A subnation of immigrants. "For some people, the debate over the immigration bill before the Senate ended on June 18. That day, the Congressional Budget Office released two reports, one suggesting that the bill would increase economic growth in the U.S. and the other suggesting it would reduce the deficit over the next two decades." Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review Online.

CILLIZZA: How Rubio won on immigration. "Marco Rubio made a giant gamble by going all-in on the immigration debate in the Senate. And he won — big time...Rubio then methodically did everything he personally could to make sure that the certain opposition of some faction of conservatives did not paralyze the effort to pass the bill.  What Rubio understood from the start was that the key to the bill succeeding was not convincing every Republican to vote for it — since that would be impossible." Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Andrew Belle, "The Ladder," 2010.

Top op-eds

BERNSTEIN: The missing piece to the recovery is full employment. "A simple statistical model of the relationship between annual hours and unemployment shows that since the mid-1970s, for every point the unemployment rate falls, annual hours of work go up by 3.7 percent for low-income workers from the bottom fifth of the income scale, 1.7 percent (about half as much) for middle-income workers, and 0.8 percent (half as much again) for high-income workers. But these are broad historical averages.  During the late 1990s, the last time the United States economy was at full employment, low-income workers were remarkably responsive to strong labor demand." Jared Bernstein in The New York Times.

YGLESIAS: Outsource the CEO. "The surprise revealed in a great new database of executive compensation—compiled by Equilar on behalf of the New York Times and covering U.S. firms with more than $1 billion in revenue—is the striking lack of method to the madness: America’s CEOs are paid a lot largely because other American CEOs are also paid a lot...This reflects the fact that nobody really knows how to judge a CEO’s worth." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

BROOKS: Why they fought. "These letter writers, and many of the men at Gettysburg, were not just different than most of us today because their language was more high flown and earnest. There was probably also a greater covenantal consciousness, a belief that they were born in a state of indebtedness to an ongoing project, and they would inevitably be called upon to pay these debts, to come square with the country, even at the cost of their lives. Makes today’s special interest politics look kind of pathetic." David Brooks in The New York Times.

CHEMERINSKY: Justice for Big Business. "A majority of the justices seem to believe that it is too easy to sue corporations, so they narrowly construed federal laws to limit such suits. These decisions lack the emotional resonance of the cases involving race and sexuality, but they could have a devastating effect on people who have been wronged by companies." Edwin Chemerinsky in The New York Times.

FELDSTEIN: Start the taper now. "[E]xperience shows that further bond-buying will have little effect on economic growth and employment. Meanwhile, low interest rates are generating excessive risk-taking by banks and other financial investors. These risks could have serious adverse effects on bank capital and the value of pension funds. In Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's terms, the efficacy of quantitative easing is low and the costs and risks are substantial." Martin Feldstein in The Wall Street Journal.

TONELSON: A false renaissance in manufacturing. "Manufacturing’s robust growth last year did raise its percentage of inflation-adjusted total economic output to 12.5 percent. That’s a big change from its nadir of 11.5 percent in 2009. But this improvement is only a return to levels that industry reached regularly during the previous bubble decade, when manufacturing is widely thought to have atrophied in relative terms largely in response to the financial sector’s bloat." Alan Tonelson in Bloomberg.

Haunting interlude: The last words of the condemned.

2) Fleshing out marriage equality

Obama administration extends federal-employee benefits to same-sex couples. "In a memo to federal agencies on Friday, the Office of Personnel Management said federal workers will have until Aug. 26 to change their enrollment for most benefits, including health, dental, vision, life, and long-term care insurance. They will have two years to alter their status for retirement benefits, the document said." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

FEC asked to recognize rights of married gay couples on campaign donations. "The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Monday asked the Federal Election Commission to treat married gay couples the same as opposite-sex spouses, part of an early push to bring federal statutes in line with the Supreme Court’s decision last week striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act...The commission ruled in April that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman, prohibited married gay couples with a single income to donate through one check." Matea Gold in The Washington Post.

Same-sex marriage fight could cost tens of millions. "Since 2012, Freedom to Marry has invested $5.8 million through its Win More States Fund directly into state campaigns, and leveraged another $2.4 million from other groups. Marc Solomon, the group’s national campaign director, said that the group aims to “raise at least $20 million between now and the end of 2016 to win more states and in order to finish the job and get back to court as quickly as possible.”" Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Fail interlude: This attempted robbery was over before it began.

3) It's still the economy

This recovery needs investment. "Among the figures, here's perhaps the central question for this quarter: Why is private investment still so weak? And is it about to roar back? Spending on personal consumption, adjusted for inflation, has grown $441 billion, or 4.7 percent, since the start of the recession. Real private investment, by contrast, is still $206 billion short of its pre-recession level. It's only when you put aside homes and commercial structures that investment has grown. And that gets to the problem: Businesses and households have been reluctant to make longer-term economic commitments. Most important, they're afraid of building. Investment in residential and commercial real estate, once 9 percent of gross domestic product, is still half that." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

Explainer: 2013 is halfway over! This is how the economy is doing, in 11 charts. Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Firms paid 12.6 percent tax rate in 2010. "A government watchdog agency found that large, profitable U.S. companies on average paid U.S. federal income tax equaling 12.6% of their world-wide income in 2010...When foreign, state and local taxes are included, the average effective tax rate of large profitable U.S. companies increases to about 16.9%, the study found." John D. McKinnon in The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. factories buck global slowdown. "The Institute for Supply Management on Monday said its broad index, in which any reading above 50 indicates expansion, rose to 50.9 last month from 49 in May. The report showed growth in new orders, production and inventories. However, in a potentially troubling sign for Friday's jobs report, the employment index contracted for the first time since September 2009." Brenda Cronin in The Wall Street Journal.

...And a revitalized U.S. auto industry cranks up exports. "The U.S. auto industry, in tatters just four years ago, is emerging as an export powerhouse, driven by favorable exchange rates and labor costs in a trend experts say could drive business for many years...Last year, more than one million cars and light trucks were exported from U.S. auto plants, the highest recorded and a more than threefold rise from 2003, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration." Christina Rogers and Neal E. Boudette in The Wall Street Journal.

Banks seek détente with CFPB. "Big U.S. banks are working behind the scenes to ease tensions with a new federal consumer regulator whose approach to policing the financial sector has triggered industry criticism...The CFPB's moves highlight a balance the agency is trying to attain as it approaches its two-year anniversary. Agency officials want to counter persistent criticism from companies and some Republicans on Capitol Hill that it is insensitive to the concerns of companies. CFPB officials also want the agency to be seen as a tough but effective consumer regulator." Alan Zibel and Dan Fitzpatrick in The Wall Street Journal.

Great interlude: What's the most intellectual joke you know?

4) Law and public opinion on abortion

What makes Ohio's new abortion law unique. "While Texas’ legislation was notable for packaging together several barriers to abortion, Ohio’s law contains something unique to the state. Clinics must have an agreement with a local hospital to transfer patients there in the case of an emergency, but public hospitals are barred from entering into those agreements. Opponents of the restriction say they will be used as an excuse to close clinics that have no way of complying. Another way the new law is unusual: the director of the state department of health, a political appointee, has the unilateral power to revoke variances given to clinics without a transfer agreement." Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

Explainer: The abortion ban Texas is debating? It already exists in 12 other states. Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

How aboot that Obamacare! Why health reform won’t turn us into Canada. "The crux of the difference between the American and Canadian health care systems is who provides coverage. The Canadian government sponsors health insurance for all citizens, regardless of income or age. While the Affordable Care Act will increase the prevalence of government-sponsored insurance, it will give access to all Americans." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

HHS knows how to make health care insurance even more exciting: Bring it to libraries. "The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) said Monday that it is providing information about the healthcare law to local libraries and training librarians to help people find certified “navigators” to help make sense of the law’s coverage options." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Poll: Many uninsured are unaware of individual mandate. "Although a majority of uninsured respondents knew about the mandate, 43 percent were unfamiliar with it — compared with just 14 percent of those who have insurance." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Study: ObamaCare rule covering 930K young adults. "More than 930,000 young adults have health insurance thanks to an ObamaCare rule making them eligible for coverage on their parents' plans, according to a new study. Researchers at Indiana University found that young adult men are twice as likely as their female peers to obtain health coverage through their parents...The report found that gaining coverage under the mandate did not affect the probability of employment, but it was associated with fewer work hours." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Health Quality Partners gets more time on the clock. "[O]n Thursday, Medicare hit “snooze” on the doomsday clock. HQP, they said, could have another 18 months...[F]or those who want to see the health-care system move towards a new model that emphasizes the management of chronic illnesses rather the treatment of acute illnesses, HQP’s reprieve is a big deal." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Paging Kevin Drum interlude: Now robots are coming for all the golfing jobs, too.

5) Regulating power plants takes a step

EPA sends White House revised emissions rule for new power plants. "The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday sent its revised greenhouse gas emissions rule for new power plants to the White House, The Hill has confirmed. The contents of the proposed rule, which now rests in the White House Office of Management and Budget, remain sealed." Zack Colman in The Hill.

Obama's environmentalism is just a campaign issue to the GOP. "When President Obama announced strong measures to combat climate change last week, environmentalists who felt he had long soft-pedaled the issue for political reasons rejoiced...But many Republicans were just as gleeful — in the belief they had been handed a powerful issue to use against Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections in energy-rich states from Texas to Minnesota." Trip Gabriel in The New York Times.

Senate leans toward Gina McCarthy confirmation for EPA. "The Senate seems likely to confirm Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency in July despite warnings that President Barack Obama’s new climate agenda could torpedo her nomination...McCarthy should win support from Republicans who have traditionally opposed filibustering presidential nominees even if they have been critical of the climate change plan Obama announced last week to limit power plants’ carbon emissions." Darren Goode in Politico.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

This terrifying chart shows we’re not growing enough food to feed the worldBrad Plumer.

Let’s not shut down the Internet to ward off cyberattacksTimothy B. Lee.

Google Reader dies today. Here’s why I’m not replacing itEzra Klein.

How aboot that Obamacare! Why health reform won’t turn us into Canada. Sarah Kliff.

Update: If this was a pill, you’d do anything to get itEzra Klein.

The abortion ban Texas is debating? It already exists in 12 other statesSarah Kliff.

‘Doing the Best I Can’: Fatherhood in the Inner CityHarold Pollack.

Everything you need to know about the student loan rate hikeDylan Matthews.

Et Cetera

Key federal student loan rate doublesNick Anderson in The Washington Post.

Defying liberal critics, Sen. Feinstein defends NSAJeremy W. Peters in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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