Congress adjourned for the rest of August on Friday, without passing legislation aimed at addressing the ongoing influx of young migrants from Central America and with only a stopgap measure on transportation. The arrival of the annual recess means it’s time for another predictable round of complaining among pundits about congressional do-nothing-ism. Charles Blow takes up the baton for this lap in the New York Times, quoting a Pew study showing that the 113th Congress has passed fewer laws up to this point in its tenure than any other in the last two decades. There are many legitimate reasons to be unhappy with Congress, but the arguments that they didn’t pass enough laws or didn’t spend enough days in session are not among them. Measuring the number of laws passed and the number of days in sessions is a terrible way to assess whether members of Congress are doing their jobs, and it distracts people’s attention from more important conversations we could be having about what kinds of legislation we want and what kinds we would be willing to accept.
Measuring Congress’ job performance by counting the number of laws they pass is silly because, in much the same way that the federal budget isn’t like your household budget, your congressperson’s job is not like your job. Say you work for a company that makes sausages and sells them to people. All else being equal, the more sausages you contribute to making and selling, the better you’re doing at your job. If you have the worst sausage-production year in two decades, you can probably expect some people to get fired. But no matter the similarities that might exist between law-making and sausage-making, they’re different in that making more sausages is always a good thing, while making more laws is not. Even if the average quality of sausage goes down, as long as your company can sell them, it’s doing a better job if it makes more than if it makes fewer. And insofar as you contribute to adequate sausage production and sales, you’re doing well at your job. The same thing is certainly not true about laws. The Congress that makes more laws isn’t necessarily doing better; the Congress we want is the one that passes the laws that the country needs right now.
I’m certainly not saying that Congress is doing a good job by that metric either, but it’s important to distinguish the two because simply complaining about congressional laziness makes it seem like everyone agrees about what they ought to be doing and it’s only the fault of members that it isn’t getting done. This ignores the fact that one reason Congress isn’t passing very many laws is because members, not to mention large swathes of the electorate, deeply disagree about what kinds of laws ought to be passed. Everyone can be mad that no legislation was passed to address the current border crisis, but that happened because most Republicans think the Senate bill is worse than the status quo, and most Democrats think the same thing about the bill passed by the House. Everyone would prefer that Congress do something, but that doesn’t mean there’s any particular thing that everyone thinks is better than doing nothing. Obviously you should have your own preference and you can criticize Congress for not enacting the laws that you would like to see, but then the problem isn’t that congress isn’t working hard enough, it’s that they aren’t passing the laws that you think would be acceptable improvements to current ones.
Forging compromises that can get support of enough legislators (not to mention the President) in order to be enacted is hard work, but that doesn’t mean that if congress fails to come to any compromises it’s because they aren’t working hard. Arguments like Blow’s make it seem like the solution is easy. If our lazy legislators would just get off their butts and pass some laws, like the American people clearly want them to, everything would be great. This might sell a lot of newspapers to Americans who love to hate their representatives, but it understates the difficulty of governing and it also takes away column inches that would be better used debating the merits of an actual policy proposal. Pundits who don’t like what Congress is doing should give some suggestions for a piece of legislation they’d be happy with or spend some time educating the public about the causes of the current state of gridlock. This might not make for a highly shareable infographic or a clickbait headline, but it’s what could be called “doing your job.” It’s lazy and irresponsible to stick to a posture of generalized complaint that gets agreement from a large proportion of readers without taking any position on what actually should be done. We should measure Congress’ performance not by counting their output, but by comparing what they did to what we would have liked them to do. If we apply the same standard to our pundits, we may discover do-nothing-ism someplace other than where we’d expected it.