Congress Wants the Love—For Doing its Job

Low expectations and self-congratulations have turned Capitol Hill into a joke

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) at a news conference on the Jobs Act at the U.S. Capitol, on February 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Guess what? I didn’t rob a convenience store this week! I also didn’t cheat on my wife, get involved in a bar brawl or steal money from my kids’ piggy-banks. Not bad, eh?

You might argue that none of these things ought to earn me special plaudits and I might agree. Honoring marriage vows, staying out of fights and not touching other people’s stuff are some of the most basic rules listed in our Being Part of a Civilized Society orientation kit.

But you and I aren’t members of Congress—a legislative frat house in which the same standards don’t apply and anything short of burning the whole place down has become a cause for giddy self-congratulation. Here was House Majority leader Eric Cantor in early March, after the lower chamber passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups bill—a little package of incremental measures that could, in theory, stimulate a bit of job creation, even as the GOP has blocked the overwhelming share of President Obama’s more sweeping jobs bill and proposed nothing comprehensive to replace it: “What we’re trying to do is regain the confidence of the people that sent us here. By having a win like this I think we can demonstrate we can really work together.”

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Here was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers last month after Congress agreed to extend the social security tax cut. For 10 months. With no real way to pay for it: “It is good to see that responsible leadership and good governance can triumph.”

It’s not like Congress doesn’t have a clear job description. Indeed, Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution lists a full 18 areas of responsibility—which ought to be enough to keep even the most feckless body busy—ranging from such bracing things as raising an army and declaring war to less sizzling work like establishing inferior courts and regulating patents and copyrights.

And yet even with such a Constitutional to-do list, Congress still seems unable to pass a deficit-reduction deal—or immigration reform or comprehensive entitlement reform or a coherent energy policy or a framework for fixing the nation’s decaying infrastructure. Meantime nearly 60 judicial nominees circle the Senatorial airport, where they’ve been stuck by parliamentary petulance for over a year. Last month, when senators agreed to move forward on 11 of them, they issued—yes—a press release, rather than, say, a mea culpa.

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It’s the lack of humility at the small-potatoes nature of their little compromises that makes Congress so galling to so many people. But expectations of high-fives for doing the absolute minimum is not a province of Washington alone. One of Chris Rock’s funniest—if most racially explosive—riffs is his celebrated smackdown of people who are forever boasting about doing things they’re expected to do anyway:

I take care of my kids.
You’re supposed to take care of your kids!
 I’ve never been to jail.
What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectations-havin’ m———–!

That same bragging about jumping over a very low bar occurs all the time in other situations: when hung juries are spun as vindication (see Rod Blagojevich, the first time around); when minor irregularities in a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs are peddled as the same thing as a clean test (see Milwaukee Brewers MVP Ryan Braun); when a sports team with fewer arrests—as opposed to none at all—is touted as somehow more virtuous than one with many. In early 2011, after three Cincinnati Bengals were arrested in eight days, moving the team atop the NFL’s felony leader board, a Bengals fan wrote on an MSNBC sports blog: “The Bengals have a very AVERAGE amount of arrests in the past 5 years. They might have fewer arrests than YOUR team.” OK, stipulated. But you sure you want to set that as your good-citizenship benchmark?

It’s government officials, of course, who have turned such moral relativism into high art, slicing virtue so fine that being an unindicted co-conspirator is somehow meaningfully better than being an indicted one; that telling a subcommittee you have no recollection of committing a crime is the same as not having committed it; that, yes, not inhaling is the same as not smoking.

Congress has a lot of work to do if it’s going to climb out of the swamp of its self-imposed 11 percent approval rating. Whatever you might think of President Obama, he does his job. He shows up for work, busies himself with presidential stuff all day long and probably—let’s be honest—works a lot harder than you or I. The same is true for the current, very conservative Supreme Court—which is either a guardian of bedrock Constitutional principals if you’re on the right or a tool of the plutocrats if you’re on the left, but in either case hears a full load of cases every year and writes a lot of very long and usually very important opinions. Congress would be well served just by showing up, shutting up and doing its job. Voters will decide then they deserve a high five.

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