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Obama, Truman, and the 'Do-Nothing' Congress

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
updated 5:20 PM EST, Tue December 27, 2011
Obama says he would love it if Congress would act so aggressively that he couldn't campaign against a
Obama says he would love it if Congress would act so aggressively that he couldn't campaign against a "do-nothing Congress."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama may be preparing to run against a "do nothing" Congress in 2012
  • Harry Truman famously ran against a "do nothing" GOP Congress in 1948 -- and won
  • The current Congress has compiled a record of few legislative accomplishments

Washington (CNN) -- Dust off the Truman playbook.

After a year of repeated partisan showdowns between the White House and Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama appears ready to hit the campaign trail in 2012 with congressional Republicans firmly in his sights -- a reprise of Harry Truman's 1948 come-from-behind strategy against Tom Dewey and the "do-nothing" 80th Congress.

"I would love nothing more than to see Congress act so aggressively that I can't campaign against them as a do-nothing Congress," Obama told reporters back in October. But people "are very skeptical about Congress's ability to act right now. ... The American people are very frustrated. They've been frustrated for a long time. They don't get a sense that folks in this town are looking out for their interests."

Two months later, little appears to have changed. Congress, saddled with record low approval ratings, limped out of Washington last week with one of the least distinguished legislative records in modern memory.

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Strictly by the numbers, the charge that this is a do-nothing Congress appears justified. As of the start of December, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had passed 326 bills, the lowest number in at least the last 10 nonelection years, according to a Congressional Record tally cited recently in the Washington Post.

The Senate had passed 368 measures, its lowest total since 1995, the Post noted.

As of early December, Obama signed 62 bills, according to the Post, compared with 88 for Bill Clinton in 1995 after the last Republican takeover of the House.

What exactly were this year's legislative highlights? Narrowly avoiding a government shutdown, barely avoiding a default on the national debt, and squeezing through a two-month extension of an average $80 monthly cut in the payroll tax.

In April, Congress passed a measure cutting $38.5 billion in spending. Some conservatives, however, felt that wasn't enough. Others later felt misled when a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis revealed that only a small fraction of the cuts would take effect in the current fiscal year.

"Total nonsense," House Speaker John Boehner said at the time. "A cut is a cut."

The summer's debt ceiling debate produced a lot of talk about a so-called "grand bargain" between Democrats and Republicans that would generate $4 trillion in deficit reduction while tackling politically sensitive entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. But Boehner reportedly pulled the plug when his GOP caucus balked at the prospect of raising taxes on the wealthy as part of the deal.

Republicans, who were savaged by Democrats after Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, unveiled a budget plan incorporating major Medicare changes, argued Obama was never serious about entitlement reform.

The debt ceiling debate ended with a more modest agreement to cut roughly $900 billion in discretionary spending over the next decade while creating a 12-member bipartisan "super committee" to find at least another $1.2 trillion in savings. After weeks of contentious negotiations, the panel failed to reach its goal -- still more proof of congressional dysfunction, analysts said.

The fallback plan enacted in the event of a super committee failure calls for $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over the next decade, including $600 billion from the Pentagon. Hawkish Republicans are already pushing to undo the defense cuts -- something Obama promises to oppose.

Finally there was December's payroll tax standoff, widely seen as a win for Democrats on an issue -- taxes -- that has historically favored the GOP. Republican leaders first questioned the merit of the tax holiday and then complained that anything less than a yearlong extension would be more trouble than it's worth. Obama, meanwhile, used the standoff to portray the Republicans as defenders of the rich who care little about the economic strains facing the middle class.

Ultimately, Congress kicked the can down the road, opting for a two-month extension after conservative leaders in the Senate and elsewhere complained that House Republicans were bungling the issue.

The episode raised fresh questions about Boehner's control over the House Republican caucus. The speaker, according to several accounts, initially favored the two-month extension, which had passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. He retreated from that position in the face of a tea party-fueled revolt, but flipped yet again after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and others complained.

Bucking the Senate "may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world," Boehner conceded.

Conservative freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, later told CNN he was "disappointed in our entire (GOP) leadership team."

One silver lining: Congress did manage in October to approve free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. That's small potatoes, however, compared with the record of Truman's "do-nothing" Republican Congress, which passed Cold War aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan for Europe, Taft-Hartley labor law reforms, and legislation creating the CIA. That Congress also changed the presidential succession law and limited future presidents to two terms, among other things.

In fairness, the 112th Congress still has another year to go. But given their current track record and with an election now looming, this group of legislators seems likely to wind up as little more than a campaign trail punch line.

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