What’s So Bad About A Do‐​Nothing Congress?


With Congress finally set to adjourn, Washington pundits are blasting the "do-nothing" Republican Congress. The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt, among others, recently seethed that "this has been one of the pettiest, most irrelevant sessions full of cheap shots and expensive pet projects while brushing aside big issues."

But the press is missing the idea that in this sizzling economy, there's a lot to be said for do-nothingism and gridlock. "When you're in the groove economically," says economist Arthur Laffer, "you want to stay in the groove. The less Congress does, the better." Ray Keating of the Small Business Survival Committee has shown that over the past 20 years, the economy tends to do better the fewer laws Congress passes.

Economist Jim Bianco of Arbor Trading Co. has documented that during the past several decades, the stock market performs more than twice as well when Congress is out of session and isn't regulating, taxing, spending or engaging in other meddlesome activities that erase wealth.

In Washington, "do-nothingism" is defined as refusing to pass the Democratic legislative wish list. So the failure to enact a Medicare prescription drug benefit, campaign finance "reform" legislation, a health care bill of rights (really a "trial lawyers' bill of rights"), a minimum wage increase, and day care subsidies is disparaged as a sign of ineffectiveness. A strong case can be made that the greatest virtue of Congress over the past six years has been its judicious inaction on President Clinton's most economically destructive ideas — notwithstanding the unsightly election-eve spending spree that funded many of Clinton's budget priorities.

But the charge that Congress has done nothing productive this year contradicts its legislative track record. Congressional Republicans have passed a slate of impressive pro-growth bills this year, despite their razor-thin five-seat majority. Here's a list of the accomplishments:

  • Repeal of the Social Security earnings test imposed against seniors who continue to work after they reach the age of 65.
  • Phaseout of the unfair death tax over 10 years.
  • Passage of the free trade agreement with China.
  • Marriage penalty elimination.
  • Sunsetting the IRS tax code.
  • Telephone tax repeal.
  • Banking reform.
  • The largest budget surplus in American history.

That's a lot of activity for a "do-nothing Congress." None of those accomplishments are regarded as of much consequence to the national media, because most in the chattering class don't favor those reforms. It's a very peculiar double-standard in Washington that failure to enact a new multibillion-dollar entitlement for Medicare is denounced as a sign of "do-nothingism," but passage of a bill to eliminate the death tax, the most despised and unfair levy in the entire IRS code, is greeted with a ho-hum.

If Republicans hold Congress and win the White House in November, they will almost certainly abolish the death tax, cut income tax rates, begin the process of converting Social Security into a system of private retirement accounts, and expand the school choice option for tens of thousands of poor families across the nation. All those initiatives could have enormously positive effects on the American economy. This stands in stark contrast to Vice President Gore's activist agenda, which promotes the Kyoto environmental treaty, the breakup of Microsoft, a carte blanche for trial lawyers to assail successful industries, and at least three new social welfare entitlements.

Alas, Al Hunt is right about one thing: There has been a pork festival on Capitol Hill of late. My dreary prediction is that federal spending may actually rise faster if Republicans control both the White House and Congress than it has during the Clinton years. A reduction in gridlock greases the wheels of the legislative process and inspires the regulatory ambitions of legislators. Still, to the extent that the current Congress can accurately be branded as “do nothing,” it deserves our gratitude.