Who to Blame for a Do-Nothing DC?

Matt Mackowiak

11/1/2011 2:35:00 PM - Matt Mackowiak

Last week, President Obama blasted Congress for refusing to “act.” He’s right; it won’t. But Obama ought to focus the blame where it really belongs: on his own party. Because it’s the Democrats in Congress who are causing gridlock -- intentionally -- especially those in the Senate, which has been in Democratic hands for nearly five years now.

Expect them to keep it up. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid survived his re-election last year with a scorched-earth campaign and is shielded from voters through 2016, when he’ll be 77 and unlikely to seek re-election. He’s hell-bent on making sure the Senate does nothing -- at least until after 2012. Why? Politics.

Following the 2010 election wave, which saw Republicans pick up a net 67 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, Reid faced a choice: Compromise for the good of the country by allowing bills to come to the floor with open debate and amendments or cynically begin plotting for the next election.

Guess which he chose? As Roll Call reported, citing Democratic operatives, “Reid has been effective in protecting his members from taking votes with potentially damaging political consequences.” With 22 incumbent Dems facing re-election next year, he’s determined to skirt any action that might threaten his caucus -- and his slim majority. Public policy comes second.

The result: The only significant legislation the Senate has passed this year is so-called “must pass” bills (debt-ceiling hike, continuing resolutions to prevent a government shutdown, etc.). No legislation has passed to counter the unemployment crisis. None.

Fact is, Reid has singlehandedly made 2011 the least productive year in the Senate since before 1989, the earliest year for which statistics are available. How bad is it? Consider:

• The end of the 2011 fiscal year came and went on Sept. 30, yet the Senate had only passed one of the 12 required appropriations bills (and that was the least controversial, funding military construction and veterans programs). In recent days, the Senate finally considered three more appropriations bills -- three full weeks after the fiscal year ended.

• Under the Democrats, the Senate has failed to produce a budget in more than 900 days -- and likely won’t until next at least next February, or perhaps 2013.

• With the House in Republican hands, the Senate refuses to take any action before the House does. But, then, it also is letting House-passed bills die, instead of amending them and proceeding to a conference committee, as has been the historical standard.

• Three trade deals -- with South Korea, Panama and Colombia -- took years to pass although, when Reid finally let them come to the floor, they sailed through quickly, each with at least 66 votes.

• You may have heard idle threats of one party or the other resorting to a procedural “nuclear option” in the Senate in times past. This year, Reid actually pulled the trigger -- for the first time since 1941.

And to what purpose? To prevent a vote on Obama’s own “jobs bill.”

Meanwhile, look at the House under Republican leadership this year: The House Majority Leader’s Office reports that it has taken 800 roll-call votes through Oct. 14. Under Democratic leadership, it took just 565 by that date last year.

OK, before starting a 10-day recess this month, Senate Dems did take several dozen votes on the appropriations measure. But, again, there hasn’t been much to speak of beyond that. Which explains the palpable frustration among members, who are questioning whether they should have sought the office in the first place, and among staff, who are wondering why they work long hours for low pay and high stress, according to my Capitol Hill sources.

If Obama is truly bothered by a “do-nothing” Congress, as he says, he can do something about it: Get his fellow Democrats in the Senate to move bills, open up the amendment process, debate legislation on the floor and take votes.

Or he can just keep quiet.