THE 96TH CONGRESS, which convened in January, is in some ways a revolutionary Congress. It has only sent eight bills to the White House for the president's signature, the lowest number for this period since the second term of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. It is in short, a do-nothing Congress.
Not only has it passed fewer bills, it also introduced considerably fewer bills than it did during the same period in the previous session. It also recorded fewer voted, and it has even talked less. The Congressional Record this year is gaining weight at a much slower pace.
Some people, of course, dislike this state of affairs. For one thing, life on Capitol Hill is not as frenetic as usual. "This is th most boring session I've seen in my years on the Hill," a Senate aide complained to a New York Times reporter. Moreover, some Democrats, especially those on the Left, find do-nothingism positively sinful. The Democratic Party, which controls Congress, usually likes heavy legislative meals. Cuisine minceur is a Republican diet.
The most obvious reason for such inaction is that congressmen think it too risky to propose new legislation. New legislation is not what their constituents want, since it usually means new programs, which cost money. With the specter of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget hovering in the air, no one wants to appear even remotely profligate with the public purse. Introducing bills is not the way to get reelected.
But another, more important reason obtains. Many congressmen are chary of proposing new legislation because they little sense of what the shape of that legislation should be. Everyone, whether liberal or conservative, is against inflation, for reasonably full employment, a cleaner environment, a better balance of payments, etc., etc., but few persons have a clear idea of the mix of policies needed to attains such worthy goals. Congressmen hear myriad economists, scientists, business lobbyist and so-called public interest groups telling to do a, b, c, or x, y, z; and they also hear many social scientists wailing about the unintended bad effects of previous programs. Surrounded by such a din of conflicting or disenchanted voices, many figure the best thing to do is to hunker down and wait out the storm - wait, that is, until they have a better sense of what the situation requires.
Do-nothingism, according to my dictionary, is a disparaging term for a political policy that offers no initiave for change. Yet, given the confusions of the moment, do-nothingism is a positive policy - above all, a prudent policy. Many people of course despise prudence, which William Blake called "a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity." But Blake was a poet, not a politician - a man bent on cultivatiing the imagination, not a man saddled with responsibility of power. Better to heed the wisdom of his contempary, Edmund Burke, who called prudence "in all things a virtue, in politics the first of virtues.'
Prudence, however, does not mean an unthingking opposition to all new legislation. And it does not mean a libertarian distrust of all government intervention. Prudence merely means that one should have a reasonable sense of what a particular course of action entails. With due respect to the American Heritage Dictionary, I propose that do-nothingism be considered a neutral term, not a pejorative one. The signs of the times, I suspect, are with me in this regard, for recntly I noticed a bumper sticker that said: "Don't just do something, stand there." Which is just what the 96th Congress is doing.