Lessons From a 'Do Nothing' Congress

As the year ends and Congress transitions to Democratic rule, it’s time to review the most significant accomplishments of the old Congress and ponder what lessons we can learn from them, and how those lessons might apply in the new environment.

As a conservative, my list of accomplishments logged by the 109th Congress is long on defensive “wins”—disastrous policies averted. But let’s start with the positive, shall we?

• Confirmation of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. These two confirmations may well stand as President Bush’s most enduring legacy. Only time will tell whether these jurists eventually tilt the court away from its tendency to legislate from the bench. But at the very least, the administration succeeded in adding two exceedingly powerful, right-of-center intellects to the court.

Lesson: Undeniably qualified conservative jurists are confirmable.

• Advancing the anti-terrorism agenda. The 109th Congress began with reauthorization of the Patriot Act and ended with passage of the Military Commissions Act. The former gives law enforcement authorities the same tools for tracking down terrorists that they’ve used successfully against drug kingpins and mobsters. The latter overcomes ACLU-inspired legal objections to rigorous interrogations of terrorists. In a September 6 speech, Bush candidly pled for the interrogation program saying: “Were it not for this program … al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland.”

Lesson: The presidential bully pulpit can be decisive.

• Extending pro-growth tax relief. The 109th Congress stopped scheduled tax hikes on both dividends and capital gains, and passed a one-year tax cut on income earned and taxed overseas (known as “repatriated income”). Combined with lower rates on wages and salaries, these incentives contributed mightily to our roaring economy. The one-year repatriated income adjustment alone produced an “unanticipated” surge of more than $300 billion back into the United States.

Lesson: Ignore the purveyors of class warfare. Create incentives for economic growth, and it will come.

• The unnoticed and unappreciated House-passed agenda. Many denounced the 109th as a “do-nothing” Congress. But that moniker fits the Senate far better than it does the House. The lower chamber notched quite a few achievements, including: permanent repeal of the death tax; line-item veto; opening ANWR and sections of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling; eliminating regulatory roadblocks to refinery construction; reforming the Endangered Species Act to protect private property owners; requiring the UN to reform or lose half its U.S. contribution; reining in the trial bar, and passing a border security bill to enforce immigration laws and identify potential terrorists. Unfortunately, all these measures died in the Senate.

Lesson: Voters look to the bottom line. They don’t give Congress credit for partial victories.

The remainder of my list falls into the “disasters averted” category—a category that will likely constitute an even larger share of my list two years hence.

• Stopping the Senate-passed immigration bill. Credit here goes to the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) and those courageous senators whose floor amendments exposed the bill’s more controversial provisions and galvanized public opinion against what would have been the largest expansion of the welfare state since the days of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

• Blocking the asbestos litigation bill. Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.) successfully raised a budgetary point of order to stop debate on this sop to the trial bar that eventually could have cost the taxpayers as much as $695 billion.

Purging pork. Early in the year, big spenders in the Senate tried to attach $14.4 billion of unrelated pork to an emergency spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a sophisticated strategy that employed a presidential veto threat, well-timed statements from House leadership, and a firm letter from 35 Republican senators pledging to uphold a veto convinced the porkers to try again another day. That day came during the brief post-election session when pols sought to attach over 10,000 pork projects to a year-end spending bill. But when Sens. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) threatened to challenge each project, lawmakers jettisoned the pork.

• Stopping welfare for farmers. Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.) invoked a budget point of order to stop “the first formal action” taken by Senate Democrats after the midterm elections—a bid to give about 100,000 farmers $4.8 billion in “emergency” farm subsidies. He prevailed by the narrowest of margins.

The “disasters averted” category yields one huge lesson: When principled minorities of lawmakers persevere, they can succeed.

“It does not take a majority to prevail,” Samuel Adams of Massachusetts once observed, “but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.” May keen, conservative minds prevail in the 110th Congress.