The humorist said of Calvin Coolidge, "He didn't do anything, but that is exactly what we wanted done." In 1948, Harry Truman won his own term in the White House by railing against the do-nothingness of the Congress controlled by the Republicans.
That easily could be repeated about both the current president and most of the Congresses in the 21st century with the exception of the adoption of a highly controversial health care reform — an act that passed on a one-party vote that cost the Democrats control of the House.
Is there much doubt left that the people's government as represented by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill is in big trouble? Faced with an intransigent Republican majority in the lower chamber and not much of a Democratic majority in the Senate, Barack Obama seems paralyzed by his own inability to game the system, relying largely on Coolidge-like appearances (sans war bonnets or a big fish) with schoolchildren and statements to the public from the bully pulpit.
He seems destined to be preserved in history mainly as the first African-American to win the job, with a nod for bringing health insurance to millions of Americans who didn't have it previously (and the verdict is still out on that). His lofty goals of 2008 and 2012 will remain unfulfilled unless by a miracle he could gain back what his party lost in 2010, the House, and maintain the narrow hold on Senate. Republicans may lose a seat or two in the House but not control, and the Democratic fortunes in the upper chamber remain vulnerable at this point partly because of the president's unpopularity.
Once again the major problems facing the nation from immigration to energy to tax reform to climate change most likely will have to wait for another administration. And the odds of success for the next person in the White House are long under the current atmosphere on the Hill. The Congress has taken on the characteristics of a failed institution with mediocre leadership from both parties. The list of put-off "to do" things gets longer every week. Fewer and fewer bills are being introduced and less and less time is being spent in session.
If the House majority leader's calendar for the year holds true, the "statesmen" we elect to oversee our well-being will come together officially only 112 of about 264 working days (excuse the expression) this year. That number could change with a weekend session or two which come only in a crisis. Statistics provided by the New York Times the other day showed that there were 18 percent fewer bills introduced through May than last year's number.
That might not be such a bad thing considering the fact large numbers of its members seem more interested in ideological purity than a sensible approach to legislating. As Will Rogers said all those years ago, Congress might be the largest collection of comedians in history — every time they tell a joke it becomes a law. While that might be a bit extreme, it clearly depicts today's atmosphere.
It has been years since the essentials of providing the wherewithal for running the government have been accomplished in regular order. Appropriations are not handled with individual bills but are consigned to continuing resolutions that are omnibus in nature and full of waste in fact. At the end of each legislative year, the congressional hands dip into the taxpayers' pockets and out come the bills to hang on a Christmas tree full of goodies designed to raise campaign funds and preserve incumbency.
The costs of the latter have become so extraordinarily high that much of those days out of session are spent hustling for bucks, in fact. All this once again testifies to the accuracy that we have the best Congress money can buy.
How do we solve the problem of a democracy so imbued with a culture of self-preservation that it is feeding on itself? We probably can't. Doing nothing may be just the way of life we have brought upon ourselves by not paying more attention to the quality of those we elect to public office. There may be some solace in the fact that when they're not doing anything, they aren't doing any harm. But inaction is good only to a point. We long ago reached that.
Dan Thomasson is an columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.
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