In 1948, when President Truman was running for re-election, he frequently attacked the Republican-controlled Congress as the “do-nothing Congress.”
In fact, the 80th Congress passed 388 public laws, making it hard to call it exactly “do nothing.” But, the president charged that Republicans in Congress were blocking his “Fair Deal” legislation, which would have lowered housing and food costs. In a campaign event in New Jersey, in October of 1948, Truman said:
I have been trying to get the Republicans to do something about high prices and housing ever since they came to Washington. They are responsible for that situation, because they killed price control, and they killed the housing bill. That Republican, 80th “do-nothing” Congress absolutely refused to give any relief whatever in either one of those categories.
Some people say I ought not to talk so much about the Republican 80th “do-nothing” Congress in this campaign. I will tell you why I will talk about it. If two-thirds of the people stay at home again on election day as they did in 1946, and if we get another Republican Congress like the 80th Congress, it will be controlled by the same men who controlled that 80th Congress…
Since then, of course, the term “do-nothing Congress” has been applied again and again. In 2013, Politico ran a piece arguing that the 113th Congress was “on track to go down as the least productive in history.” (The article was titled The (really) do-nothing Congress.) The author, Manu Raju, noted that at the time of his writing, the 113th Congress had so far enacted only 49 laws, the lowest level since 1947.
A few years later, in 2016, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake chided the 114th Congress for its inactivity. Blake saw Congress’s inaction as part of a larger trend. He wrote, “With the 114th session of Congress coming to an end, we can now take stock of just how much was accomplished over the past two years. And for this entire decade, the answer to that question has essentially been: not much.” Blake pointed out that Americans are more divided, politically, than ever before, making it harder for politicians to reach across the aisle and make deals.
That trend has only continued, and it’s been aggravated by a series of government shutdowns. By 2019, ABC News reported that members of Congress were, themselves, frustrated by their own inability to pass laws. “What people want from congress is plenty,” ABC News noted. “What they get, can fall short. Both sides are disappointed so far. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), said so far it’s been “100 days of nothing.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called that chamber a “legislative graveyard”.
Of course, as William Safire pointed out, politicians have been accusing each other of being “do nothings” for hundreds of years. In medieval France, the Merovingian dynasty became known as the “do-nothing kings;” in the 20th century, FDR mocked Herbert Hoover as a “do nothing” president. More recently, historians have tried to redeem Hoover’s legacy, but the image of him as a do-nothing president has stuck.