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The Super-Stealthy 111th Congress

Jonathan Chait is gobsmacked at the news that three-fifths of Democrats apparently think the 111th Congress hasn’t produced much:

This is just nuts. This is, objectively, a very productive Congress. Now, right-wingers think it’s been productive at dystopian, freedom-destroying confiscations of wealth that remind them of an Ayn Rand novel. But clearly Congress is doing a lot. The fact that Democrats think Congress has accomplished little is evidence of some kind of chronic depressive tendency.

I’d say a couple of things, beyond noting that Chait is of course correct that it’s been an unusually productive Congress. One is that if there’s any “chronic depressive tendency” going on, the place to look is at opinion leaders, not the rank-and-file; the latter are almost certainly just telling pollsters what they’ve been hearing from whoever it is they listen to, whether that’s Maddow and Olbermann, or the nonpartisan media, or Barack Obama and other Democratic pols.

The second is that, as usual, I’d look more to the incentives everyone has to try to explain this. So: for most Democratic activists, it has made sense to focus on pushing Congress to do the things right at the edge of what was plausible to do, or perhaps a bit beyond that. After all, if liberals didn’t push Congress to pass a public option, and immigration reform, and climate/energy, and DADT repeal -- and the ACA and the other things that Congress did pass -- then Congress wasn’t going to do those things. The result is that much of what they advocate for doesn’t happen (advocates who only try to get the easy things passed aren’t doing their causes much good, right?). 

Moreover, it makes a lot of sense for liberals to focus on GOP obstruction and Senate reform, which means again emphasizing what didn’t happen. You’re not going to get pressure on Democratic Senators to change Senate rules if most liberal constituencies are happy with what’s passed, rather than frustrated by what didn’t pass. One other thing...ask a liberal, and she’s going to tell you that George W. Bush got whatever he wanted from Congress. That wasn’t true, but it’s certainly possible that liberals significantly overestimated how productive the Bush-era Congresses were. And the question at hand here is how much this Congress passed compared to other Congresses.

What about the incentives for the president? Here, I think things are more mixed. Obama should want Democrats to believe he (and the Congress) have been successful. But he also wants to keep people motivated, and that requires having an agenda that will pass only with successful future elections, and you can only have an agenda if you emphasize the things that haven’t passed. Obama also has an incentive to emphasize GOP obstruction, because it means that bad stuff might be their fault, not his. Besides, I would expect even partisan Dems to discount claims of historic effectiveness coming from the WH or Congressional leadership. Still, I think one could certainly blame the White House for not getting the word out.

That leaves the press corps. Why have they missed the story that this has been a historically productive Congress? I can think of a few reasons. One is that the fact of the upcoming lame duck session has meant that no one is writing “how was the 111th Congress” pieces, and so they aren’t noticing. Another is that they, too, are listening to Democrats complain about obstruction instead of bragging about all they’ve done, and so they aren’t being prompted to think of this as a productive Congress. Yet another reason is the Democratic strategy of bundling lots of bills together (especially in the stimulus, the ACA, and the banking bill), meaning that raw statistics of bills passed, or even a sense of how frequent signing ceremonies have been, would tend to undervalue what they’ve done.

Mostly, though, for the regular press coverage, it’s probably just because many reporters have no sense of history at all, and don’t feel the need to consult experts with a good grasp of history, and don’t feel the need to set anything in the context of history.

(See also Greg Sargent, who flagged the numbers, and has his own perfectly plausible speculation about it).