Like Harry Truman, does Obama face a 'do-nothing' Congress?

Congress has passed a record low number of bills and blocked a record high number of presidential appointees during the Obama administration. Neither party has benefited from dysfunction in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Charles Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin defend the Democrats’ vote to weaken filibusters and make it harder for Republicans to block confirmation of the president's nominees for judges and other top posts.

Nuclear option. Obamacare. Government shutdown. Appointees left languishing. Important issues – immigration, climate change – moldering on the table.

In 1948, Democrat Harry Truman beat Tom Dewey by running against what he called a Republican majority “do-nothing Congress.”

But compared to Washington today, the 80th Congress (1947-49) back in Truman’s day was a whirl of activity, at least in terms of legislation passed.

“Indeed, [today’s] 113th Congress is on track to go down as the least productive in history,” writes Manu Raju at Politico.com. “So far, this Congress has only enacted 49 laws, the fewest since at least 1947, when the Congressional Record began tallying legislative activity on a yearly basis. In fact, the 80th Congress … enacted 388 public laws by July 1947.”

Since Mr. Truman’s time, there are just four occasions in which fewer than 100 laws were enacted by a similar point in the legislative calendar, Mr. Raju points out, and two of those instances were in the Congresses Obama has had to work with.

Not all legislation is necessarily good for the country, of course. But by this reckoning – 388-49 laws – it may be no wonder that “dysfunctional Congress” brings up more than 3 million Google items.

Republican Ray LaHood, former US Transportation Secretary and former member of Congress, sounded off on the subject recently.

"People are getting elected to do nothing and stop everything. And America's tired of that," he said, according to his hometown newspaper, the Peoria Star Journal.

"Even with President Clinton, a Democrat, and a Republican Congress, we passed three balanced budgets," the seven-term congressman said. "We passed welfare reform. We did the work that people sent us there to do. That is not happening today."

Who’s to blame?

The bottom has dropped out of President Obama’s standing with American voters.

According to a new CBS News poll released this week, Obama's job approval rating has plunged to the lowest of his presidency – from 46 percent in October down to 37 percent – with a disapproval rating that has escalated to 57 percent. That’s about where George W. Bush was at this point in his presidency.

And the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue? How are lawmakers doing in the eyes of Americans? Even worse.

“Both major parties in Congress are viewed negatively,” CBS News finds. “Just 26 percent of Americans approve of how the Democrats in Congress are doing their job, down five points from last month and the party's lowest approval measure since January 2012. At the same time, only 21 percent approve of the job congressional Republicans are doing, and 73 percent now disapprove….”

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll, also out this week, comes up with similar results.

“About as many Americans call both the Republican Party and the Tea Party political movement ‘too conservative’ – 43 and 40 percent, respectively – as call Obama and the Democrats too liberal,” ABC pollster Gary Langer wrote this week. “And the number who say the Tea Party has too much influence over the GOP has nearly doubled, from 23 percent in spring 2010 to 43 percent now. That suggests the Republicans haven't left the doghouse so much as Obama and the Democrats, courtesy of the troubled start of the new health care law, have joined them in it.”

The latest twist in Washington’s dysfunctionality came Friday when majority Democrats in the Senate steamrollered a change to that body’s rules by voting to stymie minority filibusters – the maneuver used to block nominees and bills. Now, it will take just a simple majority (rather than a 60-vote “super majority”) to end filibusters.

Republicans screamed “foul,” and they promised revenge whenever they regain majority status. But given the historic number of nominees filibustered during the Obama administration by minority Republicans – 82 compared to 86 under all previous presidents – it seems clear that obstruction has escalated.

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