The Washington Post

Some conservatives say it’s good that Congress is passing fewer bills than ever. That’s too cynical.

House members leave after a procedural vote on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It happens without fail: Any time The Fix writes about the historically few bills this Congress has passed (as Philip Bump did Wednesday), the boo birds come out in droves. Congress should not be measured by how much legislation it passes, these conservative types say.

And not only that, some say it's actually good that Congress isn't passing stuff, because that means they aren't growing the government and creating new bureaucracies, among other bad things.

Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson summed up these arguments pretty well recently:

This is fair. The number of bills that Congress passes is hardly a perfect (or the only) measure of how good the body is doing at its job. And sometimes less is more. We get that.

But the idea that passing fewer bills than ever before is a good thing is too cynical by half. And the lack of bills passed is certainly a window into -- though not the whole picture of -- just how badly this Congress has performed.

There are myriad important issues on which both Republicans and Democrats would like to see some kind of legislation passed, even as they can't agree on the substance of exactly what should be passed. These include -- but are hardly limited to -- immigration, entitlement reform, jobs, deficit reduction and tax reform.

You can argue that the number of bills passed isn't an ideal measure of how successful a Congress is. What you cannot argue is that there aren't oodles of unresolved issues that people of all political stripes want to see addressed -- and that could benefit from some sort of congressional action. Congress's inability to get much of anything done means it will continue to kick the can down the road and not really deal with these pressing issues.

Yes, congressional inaction could be -- and often is -- laid at the feet of President Obama. Some of these conservatives undoubtedly see not passing legislation as not passing Obama's agenda. But Pennsylvania Avenue isn't a one-way street, and the GOP controls the House. Inaction means both parties aren't seeing their priorities codified into law. And just like it means Obama didn't get more gun control, it also means Republicans haven't gotten more border security.

The doing-less-is-doing-more crowd also vastly oversimplifies things when it equates passing bills to expanding government. As mentioned above, cutting spending, repealing Obamacare, reforming entitlements and a whole host of things Congress could be getting done to possibly shrink government require actually passing legislation. Most bills passed by Congress don't create new programs or increase spending. What they do is manage and change the things that are already in effect -- and hopefully make them better/more efficient.

They might not get it right some or even more of the time. But does that mean they should stop trying altogether? It's fine to say that Congress passing nothing is preferable to Congress passing bad stuff. But if you like Congress passing nothing because you think it is basically incapable of passing anything good, that's getting into some pretty cynical territory.

And we would argue that's precisely the point. If Congress passing so few bills is a good thing because it's incapable of passing good bills, that's probably the biggest indictment we could think of when it comes to how bad Congress is.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.



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