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Bills may not be reaching Trump’s desk, but the House is sending plenty to the Senate

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI)
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI)

'Those knuckleheads in Congress never do anything!" is one of the most tired and commonplace complaints from callers on political talk radio. And yes, many Republicans have found 2017 frustrating so far. No, President Trump hasn't signed more bills into law than any president ever, as he asserted this month. (He's signed 42, many of them symbolic resolutions.) No, Congress hasn't yet repealed Obamacare, passed sweeping tax reform, or negotiated an infrastructure bill.

But don't blame the House of Representatives. They passed their version of health-care reform back at the beginning of May. House Speaker Paul Ryan is unveiling a plan for tax reform, and the House has passed a couple of smaller but still significant infrastructure bills.

In fact, the House keeps sending bills over to the Senate, month after month: 250 in all so far this year, according to GovTrack. Quite of few of those bills are minor — land swaps, expansion of historic sites, renaming post offices — but a significant number would count as accomplishments worth boasting about on the campaign trail next year if they were signed into law.

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Sources close to Republican House leaders are quick to point out that they don't want to seem too critical of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They say they understand there's a different set of challenges on that side of Capitol Hill, with a much smaller GOP margin, the Democrats' filibuster threats, and the Senate's own full plate of confirming the president's cabinet and judicial nominations. But they feel like the House has pulled its weight so far this year. As one source close to Ryan put it, "The House is doing its job and the bills are piling up in the Senate."

"If you turn on the TV, it says Russia this and Russia that and countdown clocks and all this stuff," Ryan said in an interview with Mike Gallagher earlier this month. "We're doing a lot of other things here in the Congress; we're not letting that stuff distract us. We have done so much of our agenda already in the House in the first six months."

If any House bill broke through the constant noise generated by the investigation of Russian meddling in the election and the president's tweets, it was "Kate's Law." This bill, named for Kate Steinle, a San Francisco woman killed by an illegal immigrant who was in the U.S. despite multiple deportations, would require a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years for any undocumented immigrant convicted of illegally reentering the United States after being deported.

"It would be a painful irony for the Republicans if some of their traditional voters or some of the Trump loyalists stayed home on Election Day 2018 out of a sense that the president is stymied by a 'do-nothing Congress.'"

Supporters of amnesty and illegal immigration vehemently oppose the law, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission said it could send 60,000 more people to federal prison over the next five years. It passed with a vote of 257 to 157, with one Republican voting no and 24 Democrats voting yes. The House passed a separate bill that would withhold federal grants from cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities, self-proclaimed "sanctuary cities."

On the campaign trail last year, President Trump promised a significant defense buildup. The defense-authorization bill passed by the House gets the ball rolling by giving the troops a 2.4 percent pay raise; establishing a new U.S. Space Corps as a separate military service within the Department of the Air Force by 2019; increasing funding for facilities restoration and modernization by $1.4 billion; providing $150 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative to help train and assist the Ukrainian military; increasing missile-defense funding by $2.5 billion; and adding 10,000 active-duty Army soldiers, 4,000 Army National Guard soldiers, and 3,000 Army Reserve soldiers.

In an effort to tame the federal bureaucracy, Florida Republican Dennis Ross introduced, and his colleagues passed, a bill that would require federal employees to provide detailed, annual reporting of "official time" — paid leave given to federal employees to perform union business such as lobbying, attending union conventions, and filing grievances. Currently, the Office of Personnel Management releases official-time costs and hours only every couple of years, and usually in response to congressional requests.

The House passed legislation to change the standards for class-action lawsuits, requiring proof that each proposed member of a class-action suit has the same extent of injuries before a federal court can certify it. Unsurprisingly, House Democrats, traditional allies of trial lawyers, overwhelmingly opposed the bill, calling it a "straitjacket" for class-action suits.

The House moved early for those irked by the secrecy and delayed disclosure surrounding donations to the William J. Clinton Foundation — which, among other things, runs the former president's library. Way back before the inauguration, the House passed the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act, which would require that fundraising organizations or foundations submit quarterly reports listing the name of any donor who gave more than $200 in money or in-kind services, in addition to the date and amount of the contribution.

The Trump administration wants to pass an infrastructure bill; the House passed a pair of bills giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sole authority for permitting international pipelines, removing the requirement that the president approve them and ending the State Department's leading role in those decisions. These represented some of the bureaucratic hurdles that delayed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. A similar bill removed authorization requirements for electric-transmission lines that cross the Canadian or Mexican borders.

Because of the particular Senate seats that are on the ballot in 2018 — 23 Democrats, two independents aligned with Democrats, and just eight Republicans — most political observers think it is unlikely that Democrats will be able to flip three seats and regain control of the Senate. Democrats feel much better about their odds of winning the House of Representatives. This month an ABC News/Washington Post poll gave Democrats a 14-point edge on the generic ballot question.

It would be a painful irony for the Republicans if some of their traditional voters or some of the Trump loyalists stayed home on Election Day 2018 out of a sense that the president is stymied by a "do-nothing Congress." If that came to pass, GOP House members would find themselves paying the price for a national political conversation — including, arguably, the contributions of the current president — that finds their legislative accomplishments too boring to deserve much attention.

Commentary by Jim Geraghty, a senior political correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @jimgeraghty.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.