11.12.11

'Do-Nothing' Congress a Target for Obama in 2012

Obama is scoring points by running against a paralyzed Capitol Hill. Patricia Murphy on why it’s working for him—even as it stymies his own agenda.

It’s been a good month for President Obama, and for once, he has Congress to thank for that. After spending the better part of the year scolding the House and Senate to “do the right thing” and pass his jobs bill, Obama seems to have given up on working with them and pivoted to Harry Truman’s tried-and-true strategy of blaming Congress for not doing anything at all.

Rhetorically, at least, the strategy is working. The president’s poll numbers have stabilized from their free fall and rebounded to the mid-40s, while Congress clocked in this month with an awful-even-for-these-guys 9 percent approval rating.

But winning the message war is a hollow victory for a president who once aspired to historic greatness and for a country trapped in an economic downturn and desperately in need of political leaders who can help haul the nation back to prosperity.

Plus, tagging the 112th Congress as just another do-nothing crowd isn’t even entirely fair. The better label might be “accomplish nothing.”

The GOP-led House has, in fact, passed hundreds of measures, from a 2012 budget to more than 15 jobs-related measures, only to see them shelved by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has been hard at work on its own, totally unrelated agenda. Together, the two chambers have done little more than butt heads, name names, and point fingers.

So far this year, the 112th has passed just 89 bills that the president has signed into law, according to White House and congressional records. Of those, three name appointees to the Smithsonian Institution, one created a military museum in Texas, and 21 renamed federal buildings and post offices, including the post office in Indiana, Pa., which is now named after Jimmy Stewart. Yes, that Jimmy Stewart.

It’s a shabby record on its own, but especially compared with last year, when Congress passed 258 bills that Obama signed into law, or 2006, when George W. Bush made the most of his last days with a Republican Congress and signed 313 of its bills. Even the original Do-Nothing Congress from the Truman era passed major pieces of legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act, which passed over Truman’s objections and after his veto.

If it’s frustrating watching the gridlock from outside Washington, it seems downright painful to be a part of it, especially for veteran lawmakers from both parties who are used to getting things done.

“It’s really bad, and it’s gotten personal.”

“I think it’s an accurate perception that things aren’t happening that need to be happening,” says Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who was once governor of Nebraska. “But if you take a look at the structure of the House, you have people over there who say ‘their way or no way,’ and it makes it very difficult to develop a consensus even within the House, let alone between the two bodies.”

Nelson says the most pressing business for Congress should be passing a budget, which it hasn’t done this year, and the 13 appropriations bills, which all should have passed five weeks ago at the end of the fiscal year.

Republican Orrin Hatch, a veteran of the Senate for more than 30 years, says he’s just as frustrated by the near-permanent impasse in the 112th Congress, but he thinks someone else is to blame—the president.

“He wants to run against Congress and blame Congress for not getting anything done, when in fact the House has passed a huge number of bills that can’t even get the light of day” in the Senate, Hatch says. “I’ve seen impasses before, but this looks deliberate to me. It just looks deliberate.”

Nelson and Hatch spoke to The Daily Beast the day after the so-called supercommittee, charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in cuts to the federal budget, reached a partisan stalemate over which Americans, if any, should pay more taxes to help close the nation’s cavernous budget gap.

The six Republicans on the committee offered to raise $300 billion in revenues by closing loopholes for the very wealthy, but only in exchange for making all the Bush tax cuts permanent at all income levels. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid slammed it as “not a real offer,” while the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, accused Obama of rooting for the committee to fail so that he can have an election-year issue to run on.

“It does raise your suspicion that the folks down at the White House are pulling for failure because, you see, if the joint committee succeeds, it steps on the storyline that they’ve been peddling, which is you can’t do anything with Republicans in Congress,” McConnell told reporters this week.

Within the committee, partisan bickering has degenerated to personal distrust. “It’s bad,” a senior Democratic staffer with direct knowledge of the negotiations said. “It’s really bad, and it’s gotten personal.”

Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican member of the committee who had been relentlessly positive in recent weeks, wasn’t smiling Thursday when he was asked how the deliberations are going. “Honestly, I’m not sure, I’m not sure,” he said. “I think that as you get to the end, it’s harder to be optimistic.”

If the committee deadlocks, not only will it trigger $1.2 trillion of automatic, across-the-board cuts, but Moody’s and other ratings agencies have warned that another downgrade of the country’s credit rating could be coming.

It’s a prospect that worries Sen. Patty Murray, the Democrat who co-chairs the committee, who admitted that both sides have a long way to go before their deadline for a vote in a week and a half. “I am working to bridge the gaps,” she said glumly.

On Friday, the president prepared to leave for a nine-day trip to Asia but took the time to call Murray and her co-chair, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, to warn them that failure is not an option.

“Congress must not shirk its responsibilities,” the White House said in a statement. “The American people deserve to have their leaders come together and make the tough choices necessary to live within our means, just as American families do every day in these tough economic times.”

Putting out a statement about the finger-wagging phone call you just made is exactly the sort of move that has pushed Obama up in the polls this month but has also corroded trust between Democrats and Republicans, and the White House and its own party, to new lows.

The good news, says Orrin Hatch, is that members of Congress and the president don’t have to like each other to work with each other.

“You don’t have to build trust here,” Hatch says. “You just have to do what’s right. And hopefully trust will come.”