It has become a common refrain in today's political discourse: decrying the nation's "Do-Nothing Congress."
As recently as last week, President Obama sang the tune in response to a threatened House Republican lawsuit over his executive actions. "As long as they're doing nothing, I'm not going to apologize for doing something," he said.
But Obama and others who describe this Congress as inactive are wrong. Republican lawmakers are doing something. And it's exactly what many of them promised voters they would do—push to roll back things like federal spending and regulations.
Even some outside critics grudgingly admit that a conservative argument aimed at keeping the perceived expansion of government in check is—in fairness—doing something, even if that something is accomplished by seemingly doing nothing.
"Obviously the House is stopping bad legislation and initiatives. But we're also passing jobs bill after jobs bill after jobs bill. We can't, unfortunately, force the Senate to act," said Republican Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. He adds: "If there is a lack of action on key issues, it's because this president doesn't even recognize there is a legislature to work with."
Speaker John Boehner echoed that theme on Tuesday in a letter published in Politico. In it, he took issue with a story that he complained placed equal blame on the House for stalled tax reform this year, and he insisted that there is "no equivalence whatsoever between the House and Senate when it comes to our record on jobs and the economy." Boehner also wrote that "it is difficult to see how we move forward on immigration when the American people—and their elected representatives—simply cannot trust the president to enforce the law as written."
Steve Pruitt, a former Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee, likens what's happening in Congress to watching a swan swim across a lake: Above the water not much appears to be happening, but under the water line, "all hell is going on."
"The apparent lack of activity really belies the reality. A lot is happening; it's just a matter of which direction things are moving, toward you or away," said Pruitt, now a managing partner at Watts Partners, a corporate and government-affairs firm. In other words—as simple as it sounds—the "Do-Nothing" or "obstructionist" view depends on whether you agree with the holdups and delays or not.
So, for instance, trying to kill the little-known Export-Import Bank is an affirmative step to end a program that conservatives don't like. Others may disagree with the move, but it's certainly not doing "nothing."
Or demanding a "rethinking" of how another long-term government program like the Highway Trust Fund operates before simply approving more funding for it might be construed as doing nothing to some. So, too, could be demands for reforms to entities like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission before reauthorization.
On Tuesday in a session with reporters, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer complained about a number of such important "time-sensitive" legislative items that have had not been addressed, despite looming expirations of program authorizations or funding levels running low.
Hoyer included in his list several unfinished spending bills due by Oct. 1, the approaching Sept. 30 expiration of the Ex-Im Bank's current authorization, the Highway Trust Fund that the administration says will be depleted later this summer, and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which will see its current authorization expire Dec. 31.
"I don't know that they're scaling back government. They're making government less effective, less helpful to the American people, less respected by our own people and people around the world," said Hoyer.
"Shutting down government, putting the creditworthiness of the United States at risk, or refusing to fix things that need to be fixed [that] even they say they are broken—[such as] immigration—I don't think that's doing what they said they were going to do," said Hoyer.
Added Hoyer: "I agree with the president. This is my 17th Congress. It's the least productive Congress in which I have served."
In fact, there is no dispute that this congressional session is a low-ebb—at least in terms of historical comparisons of the number of bills passed (though such counts do not account for the substance of the bills). Congress has passed just 121 public laws since this session began in January 2013—including 56 this year—and is on course for being the least productive ever.
Congress also faces record-low public confidence levels. Only 7 percent of Americans surveyed for a Gallup Poll last month said they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence overall in Congress, down from 10 percent last year.
But most House Republicans seem unfazed by criticism that they are on the wrong path.
Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, who was president of the tea-party-dominated freshman class of Republicans last session, said he suggests to the president, "You want to fix Social Security, let's roll. You want to fix Medicare, let's go. These issues are no joke, and you asked for the job of fixing them. Show us a proposal based on facts, not political division like the Buffett Rule."
"We are not what we are being accused of," said Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas on Tuesday, responding to the "Do-Nothing Congress" tag. He argued that it's not that House Republicans don't have ideas on immigration reform and border security, "it's the president simply disagrees with us."
"What we do in the House is to listen, author things that make sense, and explain answers to problems," said Sessions. "We are a dynamic organization that can inflict change at a rate that the American people want and can understand it."
But Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, said, "Don't get caught up in the semantics." He said that "rethinking" the Highway Trust Fund for projects "is a little generous" in terms of what is really going on, because virtually everyone acknowledges the need for this and other infrastructure projects but only House Republicans are unwilling to raise the gas tax or find some other income stream to finance it.
Likewise, with regard to the CFTC reforms, Mann says, "Trying to keep the derivatives section of Dodd-Frank from being implemented is called nullification. It seeks to undermine duly enacted law by denying funds.
"House Republicans have created a monster Congress that has done serious harm, either by doing something or nothing," said Mann.