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The do-nothing Congress is still better than the actively-do-harm Congress

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the new book 'The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.'

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) knows what matters? (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When it comes to profound disappointment in the ability of Congress to do its job, I yield to no one. We’ve lost a critical governmental function in an advanced economy in a complex world: the ability to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions — in both the foreign and domestic spheres. At a time of particularly intense challenges, House Republicans spent part of last week preparing to sue President Obama.

At the same time, before we advocate for a do-something Congress, it’s important to know what it’s planning on doing. After all, be careful what you wish for. Congress can easily do more harm than good — and has in the past. A better aspiration, especially as regards the economy, is a do-no-harm Congress.

Let me explain.

First, no question that the do-nothing label applies as per their legislative record. As Charles Blow noted in the New York Times on Sunday, quoting a Pew study:

“As of Wednesday the current Congress had enacted 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over an equivalent time span. And only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation, under our deliberately broad criteria (no post-office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other purely ceremonial laws).”

But while this record surely looks bad to some, it looks like success to others, particularly that section of the electorate that sent members to Congress to block legislation, to shut things down, to hobble the process. True, they’re a minority, but in our non-parliamentary system, such a minority has considerable clout.

So, I ask myself, is this team capable of smart immigration or corporate tax reform? That there’s a rhetorical question.

But what do I mean by a “do-no-harm Congress?” In fact, I can answer that question with a picture.

The figure below shows the impact of fiscal policy on economic growth last year and this year. In 2013, fiscal policy — taxing and spending decisions — subtracted around 1.5 percentage points off of the growth in gross domestic product. That’s equivalent to over a million jobs. This year, fiscal policy has been relatively neutral in terms of its impact on growth.

Source: Goldman Sachs researchers

That’s both a marked improvement — a clear move towards “do-no-harm” — and a reason why employment growth has accelerated this year compared to last: in the first seven months of this year, we’ve added an average of 230,000 jobs per month compared to 196,000 over the comparable period last year, a cumulative difference of 240,000 jobs. That’s not a huge difference, but I’ll take it.

So am I really saying we’re better off with these guys and gals suing the president instead of dealing with the challenges we face? Not at all — I know for a fact that there are members of both parties who are capable of reaching effective compromise that would move the country forward. (I’ve highlighted an example on this very site.) But because these voices and efforts have been consistently blocked and thwarted, all that I’m asking for now is to do-no-harm.

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Daniel W. Drezner · August 4, 2014

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