Bill Press: The new leisure class

Running for reelection in 1948 — and written off as a sure loser — Harry Truman had a field day. He crisscrossed the country by train with just one strategy, according to historian David McCullough: “Attack, attack, attack.” And the chief target of his attacks was the 80th Congress, which he branded the “Do Nothing Congress.”

In Reno, Nev., Truman claimed Congress was still run by a “bunch of old mossbacks still living back in 1890.” He warned residents of Roseville, Calif., outside of Sacramento, that a “do-nothing Congress tried to choke you to death in this valley.” But if ol’ Harry thought the 80th Congress was bad, it’s a good thing he didn’t live to see the 113th.


For all its faults, the gridlocked 80th Congress still managed to pass more than 900 bills. By contrast, in 2013, the first year of the 113th’s two-year session, Congress passed only 52 bills, making 2013 the least productive single year in congressional history and, unless things change dramatically in 2014, signaling the 113th Congress as the least effective two-year session ever. 

Sadly, even that total of 52 bills is not as good as it sounds. Included among the monumental “accomplishments” of Congress 2013 are a bill to rename an interstate bridge after baseball great Stan Musial; a bill to rename a subsection of the IRS code in honor of former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) — did anybody ask her first? — a bill on the size of commemorative coins for the Baseball Hall of Fame; a bill to name an air traffic control tower; and five bills to reauthorize existing laws. And for this hard lifting, they get paid $175,000 a year?

Granted, Congress did accomplish a few important things: restoring the Violence Against Women Act, locking in lower interest rates on student loans and ending the government shutdown. But those few achievements are far outweighed by the lack of action on items like immigration reform, climate change, gun safety, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and a farm bill —with scant hope of resolving those issues in the few working days left in 2013.

If it’s clear how badly broken Congress is, it’s also clear how to fix it. That’s what’s most frustrating. The entire dismal record of Congress could be changed overnight. The votes are there, from both Democrats and Republicans, for immigration reform, ENDA, a farm bill and other weighty matters, if only Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would allow the entire House to vote on those matters, like he finally did on the Violence Against Women Act. But, of course, afraid of losing his job, Boehner refuses to call a vote on most issues, invoking instead the mythical “Hastert Rule,” which is nothing but a cynical excuse for letting 40 or so minority Tea Party members block everything.

If it’s ever going to work again, Congress needs two things in 2014. One, it needs a majority of new members, Republican or Democrat, who come to Washington to solve problems, not play politics. And two, it needs a new Speaker who’s not afraid to lead.



Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.