Media Mantra: It's “Congress” That's Historically Unproductive, Not The GOP

As the calendar races towards 2014, and Congressional members log their final few days in session while facing daunting deadlines for a long list of pressing and unfinished initiatives, the press has been busy chronicling the futility, assigning collective blame, and giving the president permanent failing marks.

According to historians, 2013 is on track to become the least productive single legislative year in modern American history. And it's not even close. In 1995, 88 laws were passed, setting the previous low-water mark. This year, it's doubtful 70 will make it to the president's desk. (And lots of the bills that have passed are ceremonial or rather trivial in nature.) The press is not happy about the trend.   

“The paltry number of bills Congress has passed into law this year paints a vivid picture of just how bad the gridlock has been for lawmakers,” announced NBC. The Wall Street Journal noted this year's session has been “long on partisanship, indecision and brinkmanship.” USA Today bemoaned the inability “to find common ground.” And the Los Angeles Times pointed to “partisan dysfunction” as the main Congressional culprit.

See? “Congress” remains in the grips of “gridlock” and “brinkmanship.” Congress just can't find “common ground” and suffers from serious “dysfunction.”

So that's why immigration reform, the farm bill, a budget deal, unemployment benefit extensions, workplace discrimination legislation, and the defense spending bill haven't been passed or dealt with yet? And that's why the government was shutdown for 16 days in October?

Bipartisan gridlock!

Wrong. The current Congress obliterated all previous records for diminished output because the Republican Party, and especially those in the Republican-run House, purposefully bottled up as many initiatives as possible and unleashed "procedural sabotage." (They even obstructed disaster relief aid for victim of Hurricane Sandy.)

Yet eager to maintain a political symmetry in which both sides are equally responsible for so little getting accomplished, the press gives Republicans a pass for their purposeful dysfunction.

By the way, are you also experiencing media flashbacks to the government shutdown, which the Republican Party proudly engineered by reneging on a budget deal they had agreed to with the last-minute demand that Obama essentially repeal his signature legislative accomplishment of his first term, the Affordable Care Act? Back then, the one-sided shutdown maneuver was nearly universally portrayed as bipartisan “Washington dysfunction at its absolute worst” (ABC News), a “partisan logjam” (Wall Street Journal), and a “fiscal stalemate” (The Hill).  

Yet today, even as some Republican members brag about how little they've allowed Congress to accomplish, even as a plurality of voters says the GOP's top priority is to cause trouble for the president, while a majority blame Republicans for the lack of productivity in Washington, the press still prefers to portray the Capitol Hill standstill as bipartisan “gridlock.”

Because, of course, both sides are always to blame.

But they're not. Look at the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In a rare example of fleeting bipartisanship, the bill to prohibit most employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation was approved by the Senate 64-32 last month. In the House, there are more than enough votes from both parties to pass ENDA into law, but Speaker of the House John Boehner will not allow a vote.

The same goes for immigration reform. It passed by an even larger margin in the Senate (68-32), and likely enjoys even more bipartisan support in the House. But again, Boehner won't allow members to vote on the bill. He won't even allow the House to enter into negotiations with the Senate to try to hammer out a final bill. 

So how is it “gridlock” when a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a clear bipartisan majority in the House support a bill but aren't allowed to vote on its final passage?

Politically, the sabotage strategy works for Republicans. At least in the short term. Note that Obama's standing among Hispanic voters has dropped precipitously this year. Analysts assume that's because Obama hasn't delivered on his promise to pass immigration reform. That may also be because so little of the news coverage stresses the poignant fact that the bipartisan votes are there to pass immigration reform, it's just that Republican leaders in the House won't allow the “yes” vote to take place. They won't allow Obama to take credit for passing a popular law.

And yes, it really did become a scorched-earth situation this year; a nearly across-the-board effort to sabotage Obama's every move. Republicans aren't just denying the president the ability to sign meaningful bills into law. The unprecedented minority strategy includes hardcore attempts to block his cabinet picks, executive branch appointments, and judicial nominees. And specifically, blocking judicial nominees who Republicans agree are completely qualified to sit on the federal bench.

But still unsure what the call the Republican brand of anarchy, the press continues to play dumb about the magnitude of the planned interference. For instance, amidst the sabotage, the New York Times reported that while judicial nominations remain an issue of deep contention, “Among senators of both parties, there is agreement that a president should be granted deference in picking members of his cabinet and top executive branch positions.”


Last November, Republicans launched an unprecedented, preemptive campaign to make sure Susan Rice was not picked as Obama's next Secretary of State. Then they engineered an unprecedented campaign to try to stop Republican Chuck Hagel from becoming Secretary of Defense. And as late as July, two of Obama's nominated cabinet picks still hadn't received votes in the Senate, thanks to determined obstruction. 

So no, contrary to the Times reporting there is no widespread agreement that presidents should be able to pick their cabinet members and top executive branch positions. There used to be. Then Republicans ripped up that pact. The Times and others just won't say so as they blame both sides for a do-nothing Congress.