What The 'Do Nothing Congress' Can Tell Us About The Future of U.S. Politics

Author: David Yee
Created: 10 November, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read

The 113th Congress has been often dubbed a "Do Nothing Congress," citing its lack of passage of bills and waning popularity. But the original "Do Nothing Congress" was the 80th Congress during President Harry S. Truman's first term. The historical lessons that can be learned from the 80th Congress should serve as a warning to both parties, and will probably dictate much of the political strategy for the 114th Congress and the 2016 presidential election.

Republicans Retake Congress

World War II was over and the economy was starting to take off in all economic sectors of America. Truman had taken over the presidency only 19 months earlier and had far less political clout with Americans and politicians than FDR had maintained.

The Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and 11 seats in the Senate -- making it one of the steepest party losses that changed the balance of power in U.S. history.

The election is often seen as a referendum on Truman's handling of post-war labor strikes and his waffling on ending unpopular price and quantity controls of commodities (the rationing program). Democrats tried to distance themselves from Truman, which only made the problem worse, handing the Republicans a landslide victory.

Because the economy was stabilizing, Republican lawmakers were keen on undoing much of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, as well as passing pro-business legislation. The Democrats stalled or killed most of the Republican platform, using Senate closure to ensure gridlock.

The result was a "do nothing" Congress that only passed 906 laws -- quite small by the standards of that time -- with most of the laws relating to the Marshall Plan and National Defense Acts. Remiliterization in response to the growing threat of the Soviet Union was also forced upon the 80th Congress.

The 114th Congress

The Republican takeover of the 114th Congress had similar roots. Both Congress and the presidency have suffered the lowest public approval numbers ever recorded. The recession is starting to mend -- as noted by the Fed's discontinuation of the widely unpopular Quantitative Easing program -- with the Republicans looking to post-recession strategies.

Obama stayed largely out of sight in the election, stomping for very few Democratic candidates. Former President Bill Clinton took up the traditional role of the president, but even that was not enough.

There's no doubt the Democrats faced a bad map in 2014, but that is hardly the crux of the election. War weariness, increased terror threats, Obamacare, and executive orders were all hot-button issues for the Republicans at the polls.

In the first few hours after knowing the power change had taken place, many Republican lawmakers took back up the banner of derailing Obamacare as the defining issue of the next two years, while tea party favorites brought back up the issue of Obama's impeachment.

In all likelihood, the stigma of the do nothing Congress is going to stick. The 113th Congress will end up passing fewer than 300 bills for presidential consideration, with no end to the gridlock in sight.

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Democratic and Independent Strategy for the 2016 Races

The power shift that occurred with the 80th Congress was short-lived -- only one session of Congress. Other than one more brief, single-session Republican lead, the Democrats would control Congress until the 1980s.

Presidential election years tend to get much more support and turnout. The 2014 election was marked by very low voter turnout, but 2016 is likely to be much higher.

Truman spent the next two years focusing on jabbing at the Do Nothing Congress at every chance he got -- and it paid off big. He retained the presidency and the Democrats took back Congress. Democrats are probably going to focus on a similar strategy.

Democrats and independents have two primary strategies -- they slow things down with the gridlock tools in place or they give the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves with. The latter almost always tends to be a dangerous strategy.

We can most likely expect two years of wrangling over Senate closure, with the Democratic and independent senators stalling and slowing down Republican legislation.

But it won't be enough to slow things down; they need a meaningful alternative plan to the Republican platform.

Democrats need to take note from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's criticism of the Republicans for only being against the Democrats, not for a viable alternative.

A Ross Perot-style independent campaign with solid ideas and plans for American improvement may have a realistic shot at the 2016 campaign, as long as they are quick enough about laying the legal groundwork for launching the campaign. Americans are weary with partisanship -- possibly weary enough to do something about it.

One thing is for certain, the 2016 congressional and presidential races start right now.

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