The 80th United States Congress met during the third and fourth years of Harry Truman’s presidency, from 1947-49. Republicans had a majority in both chambers. Truman famously nicknamed it the “Do Nothing Congress” and, during the 1948 election, campaigned as much against that “do nothing” body as he did against Dewey–and the strategy worked. Truman won, and the GOP lost nine seats in the Senate and 73 seats in the House.
Ironically, next to the sorry lot “serving” in today’s Senate, the 80th actually looks pretty good. It passed a total of 906 bills, including the Marshall Plan and the Taft–Hartley Act. It had, however, opposed most of Truman’s Fair Deal bills, and he was able to turn that opposition into electoral victory.
Fast forward to 2021. As a newsletter from the New York Times noted,
When Republicans controlled the White House and Congress in 2017 and 2018, the only major legislation they passed was a tax cut, and the only other big bill that came close was a repeal of Obamacare, without a replacement.
When Donald Trump ran for re-election, the party did not write a campaign platform.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, and now Biden’s, Republicans have almost uniformly opposed significant legislation, be it on health care, climate change, Wall Street regulation or economic stimulus.
As President Biden has pointed out, his proposed legislation has broad bipartisan support–among voters. It’s only among members of our genuinely “do nothing” Congress that it has encountered intransigent opposition.
Admittedly, the GOP is far from a “do nothing” party at the state and local level–and what the party is doing there makes it more accurately the “do nothing good” party. State-level GOP lawmakers have engaged in multiple, unprecedented attacks on the right to vote, filing more than 360 bills to restrict voting–everything from proposals to make mail-in voting harder, to turning minor voting errors into criminal offenses. According to one report, Michigan is even trying to stop the state’s top election official from providing a link to an absentee ballot application on a state government website.
If the United States was experiencing a period of widespread prosperity and tranquillity, a pause in legislative activity might be justifiable. There is no virtue in passing laws simply to look busy. But that is hardly the case. Substantial majorities of Americans–in both parties–identify pressing issues. Their priorities may differ, and they are proposing very different “fixes” for the issues they agree upon, but virtually all Americans believe that Congress needs to negotiate in good faith, compromise where possible, and act.
The reason for GOP intransigence is simple: for several years, Republicans in Congress have elevated party over nation. A Politico article from 2016 included a quote by former GOP Senator Voinovich that has been widely reported.It pretty much tells the tale.
Starting in 2009, the Republicans in Congress adopted a simple, coherent strategy of resisting anything Obama proposed. “If he was for it,” said former Ohio Senator George Voinovich, “we had to be against it.” No Republican senators and no House Republicans voted for the Affordable Care Act. After 2012, with healthy majorities, Republicans voted to repeal the law dozens of times, with no hope that such moves would have any effect other than to register opposition. The near debt default in 2011 to the Ted Cruz-led shutdown in 2013 to the current refusal to hold hearings for the Supreme Court seat vacated by Antonin Scalia’s death have continued that trend.
Today’s GOP is so radicalized, and its voters so misinformed (polls find that some two-thirds of self-identified Republicans think Trump won the election, despite a total lack of any credible evidence) that a Biden campaign modeled after Truman’s probably wouldn’t resonate. But it might be worth a try.
History–assuming America gets to have a history–will not be kind to the venal and self-interested poseurs occupying the halls of Congress. As Jennifer Rubin recently wrote in the Washington Post,
The Republican Party is descending into know-nothingism and nativism because of the silence of Republicans who know better. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) knows that November’s election was not fraudulent and that the disgraced former president incited the Jan. 6 insurrection. McCarthy is simply too cowardly to say so. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) knows this, too; he just is too craven and ambitious to admit it. Instead of working on the country’s problems, he spends his time lashing out at Major League Baseball for opposing voter restrictions.
These pathetic excuses for public servants make the members of Truman’s “do nothing” Congress look like towering statesmen by comparison.