First Thoughts: Who’s to blame for Congress’ unprecedented unproductivity?

Who’s to blame for Congress’ unproductivity?... Living in unprecedented times during divided government… Obama to sit down with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews… On Obama’s economic speech yesterday… And on his challenge to the GOP… Strikes take place in fast-food restaurants across the country… Battling over Pryor’s “Bible” ad… On Rand Paul’s upcoming economic speech… And recount in Virginia AG race to begin on Dec. 16.

Night falls over the U.S. Capitol Dome. file photo

*** Who’s to blame for Congress’ unproductivity? By now, you probably know that the last 112th Congress (2011-2012) was the least productive in modern history, according to the available data. And so far, the 113th Congress (2013-2014) is on pace to be even more unproductive. And there are two different arguments for the low output. Democrats, as well as some nonpartisan congressional observers, blame House Republicans for their reluctance to compromise and their insistence (sometimes violated) to bring legislation that only has support from a majority of Republicans. “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise,” Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein have written. Meanwhile, House Republicans point the finger at the Democratic-controlled Senate. “To date, the House has passed nearly 150 bills in this Congress that the United States Senate has failed to act on,” House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday. But as The Hill’s Bob Cusask has noted, Boehner had a different standard back in July: “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create; we ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.” Indeed, many conservatives argue that slowing down the legislative process by not passing laws is a positive as far as they are concerned.

*** Living in unprecedented times during divided government: Of course, the other argument is that this is what you get during times of divided government. Yet here's the thing: Divided government has NEVER produced such a small number of laws until now.

113th Congress (Obama in the WH, Dem SEN control, GOP House control): 56 laws -- so far

112th Congress (Obama in the WH, Dem SEN control, GOP House control): 283 laws

110th Congress (Bush in WH, Dem SEN control, Dem House control): 460 laws

106th Congress (Clinton in WH, GOP SEN control, GOP House control): 580 laws

105th Congress (Clinton in WH, GOP SEN control, GOP House control): 394 laws

104th Congress (Clinton in WH, GOP SEN control, GOP House control): 333 laws

102nd Congress (Bush in WH, Dem SEN control, Dem House control): 590 laws

101st Congress (Bush in WH, Dem SEN control, Dem House control): 650 laws

100th Congress (Reagan in WH, Dem SEN control, Dem House control): 713 laws

99th Congress (Reagan in WH, GOP SEN control, Dem House control): 663 laws

98th Congress (Reagan in WH, GOP SEN control, Dem House control): 623 laws

97th Congress (Reagan in WH, GOP SEN control, Dem House control): 473 laws

Bottom line: This is an unprecedented level of unproductivity even during a time of divided government. Just look at the best apples-to-apples comparison of Reagan's three Congress' when his party controlled the White and Senate, but Dems controlled the House. It's not even a close call. That Dem House got a lot more done with its GOP rivals than this GOP House has with its Dem counterparts. And the unfavorable comparison continues when comparing this Congress with the divided government eras of Bush and Clinton. And then consider this: Even if you add the 150 House bills Boehner is touting, the productivity still doesn’t come close to what we saw during the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years.

*** Obama to sit down with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: With the federal health-care website (sort of) fixed, Democrats are continuing their efforts to prove that they’re no longer playing defense on the issue. President Obama sits down with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to discuss the health law in a special edition of “Hardball” airing at 7:00 pm ET. Also at 10:00 am ET today, House Democratic leaders will hold a press availability with Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who has become a hero to many Democrats and health-reform advocates for how his state has successfully implemented the law so far. But all the news isn’t rosy for Democrats. “The Obama administration was counting on seven million enrollees by the end of the first enrollment period in March, a number that was supposed to ensure a safe mix of sick, older people and young, healthy ones. Because of problems with the federal insurance exchange and the negative publicity around the rollout, the total is likely to be well short of that,” the New York Times says. “Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the administration needed to be enrolling close to 100,000 people a day to meet its target. Because state-based websites are doing better, other calculations put the necessary number closer to 40,000 a day, but few are suggesting the goal of seven million is within reach.”

*** On Obama’s economic speech yesterday: Despite all the attention on the health-care law and the website and the focus on the nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama yesterday addressed what some argue is the sleeper issue for 2014, 2016, and perhaps beyond -- growing income inequality and the lack of economic mobility. “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American,” Obama said. “Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90%, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8%. Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few.” To rectify this, the president called for a higher minimum wage, Congress re-upping unemployment insurance, extra retirement security for Americans, and patience with the implementation of the health-care law. These will all be reiterated during his State of the Union.

*** And on his challenge to the GOP: To us, Obama’s speech was striking because he firmly aligned himself with the progressive side inside the Democratic Party on this issue (as he pretty much did during the 2012 presidential campaign and in that 2011 Kansas speech). Given his stance, we’d be pretty surprised if a Hillary Clinton took a different direction in 2016. Despite some disagreeing voices (like from the Third Way), the Democratic Party doesn’t seem like it will move from this lane. Yet more importantly, it will be interesting to see how the Republican Party responds, especially given the results from 2012. In his speech yesterday, Obama issued this challenge to the GOP: “If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them. I want to know what they are. If you don’t think we should raise the minimum wage, let’s hear your idea to increase people’s earnings. If you don’t think every child should have access to preschool, tell us what you’d do differently to give them a better shot. If you still don’t like Obamacare -- and I know you don’t -- (laughter) -- even though it’s built on market-based ideas of choice and competition in the private sector, then you should explain how, exactly, you’d cut costs, and cover more people, and make insurance more secure.”

*** Warren says she’s not running in 2016: By the way, while Hillary Clinton still might have some work to do on her left flank, she is already catching an early break – Elizabeth Warren says she’s not running in 2016. 

*** Strikes taking place at fast-food restaurants across the country: This debate about income inequality and the lack of economic mobility isn’t taking place in a vacuum. “Fast-food workers in about 100 cities will walk off the job this Thursday, organizers say, which would mark the largest effort yet in their push for higher pay,” the AP writes. “The actions are intended to build on a campaign that began about a year ago to call attention to the difficulties of living on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 a year. The protests are part of a movement by labor unions, Democrats and other worker advocacy groups to raise pay in low-wage sectors.”

*** Battling over Pryor’s “Bible” ad: Turning to the 2014 midterm races, vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) has released this provocative TV ad. “I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in this book,” Pryor says to the camera with a Bible in his hands. “The Bible teaches us that no one has all the answers; only God does.” He goes on to say, “Neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star [referring to the Bible].” The National Republican Senatorial Committee criticized Pryor’s ad, writing: “Interesting ad, considering the same Mark Pryor was quoted below just last year cautioning that the Bible is ‘not a rule book for political issues.’” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fired back: “The NRSC should immediately pull down their attack and apologize to Sen. Pryor and other people of faith who don't deserve to have their religious beliefs attacked by political operatives in Washington, DC. This attack was out of bounds. Period." The campaign for Pryor’s GOP opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), seemed to agree. “Rep. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) Senate campaign on Wednesday denounced a ‘bizarre and offensive’ attack on Sen. Mark Pryor’s faith by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.”

*** On Rand Paul’s upcoming economic speech: On the 2016 front, Rand Paul is holding a conference call at 9:00 am ET to brief reporters on his upcoming trip to Detroit and speech at the Detroit Economic Club.

*** Recount in Virginia’s AG race begins on Dec. 16: Lastly, the recount in Virginia’s attorney general race will begin on Dec. 16. The AP writes, “Democrat Mark Herring's 165-vote win over Republican Mark Obenshain in the close race for attorney general is headed to a recount Dec. 17 and 18, with Fairfax County getting a one-day head start.”

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