When Republican lawmakers swept to power last November, they promised voters that the 112th Congress would be noted for the quality of legislation that passed the House, not the quantity.

However, weeks of seemingly unquenchable debate over Medicare vouchers, next year’s budget and the nation’s debt limit may have made that ambitious campaign promise far too difficult to keep. Mix in a little tea party angst, the usual Senate foot-dragging and a revamped House schedule and all C-Span viewers have to show for their troubles are hours of debate with very few new laws on the books.

“I work harder in my district than I do here,” said Rep. Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican who is serving his second two-year term. “I’ve got 28 counties in my district.”

Harper, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he is probably working at a faster pace now than during the past 27 years that he spent practicing law. “If we don’t address entitlements, we can’t solve the nation’s problems,” he said.

So far, Congress has little to show for its efforts, however. Some critics say lawmakers are failing to address the most important challenges facing the nation: the slow economic recovery and high unemployment.

In the first five months of the 112th Congress, lawmakers sent just over a dozen pieces of legislation to President Obama for his signature, including continuing resolution budget bills, transportation and tax bills, several post office naming bills and appointments to federal boards, according to public records from the Library of Congress.

By comparison, the 111th Congress sent the president 25 bills in the same five-month time period, including measures dealing with women’s pay, children’s health, small business, immigration, adoption, homeowner’s relief, credit card regulations, defense spending, TARP oversight and the comprehensive economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The reason for the lower productivity may lie in the fact that the 111th Congress was completely controlled by Democrats, who partnered with a Democratic president. Or, it could be caused by the Senate GOP leadership’s de facto filibuster requirement that all legislation must have a supermajority of 60 votes in order to be cleared for the White House.

Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said it is not unusual for the House to send hundreds of bills to the Senate each year and never see any further action.

The legislative slowdown is also attributable to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s decision to decrease the number of weeks that the House is in session this year by 11 percent. The change was meant to cut down on member travel and create certainty for lawmakers who have obligations outside of Washington, Cantor announced in a Dec. 8 letter to lawmakers.

The 2012 House schedule includes a guaranteed five-day district work period each month, Cantor said. That means some months the House is out of session more than it is in. For example, the mandatory week off combined with the regularly scheduled Easter recess meant that the House was only in session about 10 days during the month of April.

When they are in town, GOP lawmakers have spent floor time debating and voting on bills that have no chance of becoming law, such as repealing the new health care law, turning Medicare into a voucher system, shutting off National Public Radio or allowing states to divert funding away from unemployment insurance benefits.

?In short, the 112th Congress is failing to meet its responsibilities during this time of economic slowdown, said Dr. Darrell J. Gaskin, an economist and deputy director of the John Hopkins University Center for Health Disparities Solutions.

GOP lawmakers cannot pass a stimulus spending bill without appearing hypocritical to their base, so instead they are fighting ideological and culture wars under the guise of attacking the growing federal debt and deficit, Gaskin explained.

“This is evident because the only spending cuts they offer are those associated with programs they have been trying to cut for generations,” he said. “If they were serious about the debt and deficit reduction, they would accept some combination of tax increases, defense cuts, and tax expenditure cuts in addition to their proposed entitlement reform.”

Stephen K. Cooper

Special to the AFRO