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EDITORIAL: Doing nothing constructively

A do-less Congress is not necessarily a bad thing

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It was so cold when Congress came back to town Friday to tidy up loose ends and close the first session of the 113th Congress that Democrats for once had to keep their hands in their own pockets. Keeping a congressman's hands off your wallet, even if for only a day, is a good and rare thing. That's why complaints that the 113th Congress is among the least "productive" ever miss the point.

The original "do nothing" Congress, so-called by President Truman in 1947, put 395 bills on President Truman's desk. In the first session of the current Congress, 65 measures have been signed into law. There was no shirking of duty. In fact, members of Congress spent 220 more hours talking this time than Congress did six decades ago, as measured by the Congressional Record.

When liberals, like Jared Bernstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, go on MSNBC to bemoan the lack of "productivity," they're measuring the output of Congress in terms that rightly apply only to the production of goods and services. More iPhones, more turnips and more Ford Mustangs are undeniably good, but it's not at all clear that more laws are what the country needs. "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session," as Mark Twain famously observed.

Keeping bad law at bay is a positive thing, too. The Republican-controlled House has kept bad Senate legislation, notably the Gang of Eight's amnesty bill, from becoming law.

In fact, whenever the House and Senate do get together, it's often on a disappointing deal that raises taxes and increases government spending. House Speaker John A. Boehner gets it. "We should not be judged by how many new laws we create," he said in an appearance last summer on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal. We've got more laws than the administration could ever enforce."

The "do nothing" lament is a not so thinly veiled attack on the House, which has tried to keep President Obama's agenda in check. That's why voters gave Republicans the majority in 2010 and again in 2012. The House passed close to 150 bills to boost job creation, only to see them discarded by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who refuses to bring such measures to a vote, yet those who complain rarely blame him.

In a House speech last month, Mr. Boehner said his chamber had passed measures to lighten federal regulations, boost U.S. energy independence and reform job-training programs, among other things. "Every single one of these bills has been blocked by Washington Democrats," he said. He followed up with a YouTube video titled "Mr. President, What Are You Waiting For?" in which he faulted President Obama for "standing on the sidelines."

As the second session of the 113th Congress opens, members face contentious unfinished business, from the extension of unemployment benefits and the farm bill to fixing the shameful part of the budget deal that cut payments to disabled military veterans and raising the debt ceiling (again). We don't look for much in the way of bipartisan bonhomie when the new session opens.

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