PUTTING THEM THROUGH THEIR PACES…. The NYT‘s Carl Hulse has an interesting item today on Congress struggling as an institution. Apparently, the White House keeps looking to lawmakers to keep up with the president’s ambitious agenda and Congress is trying to “shake the rust from its legislative machinery and overcome the powerful inertia that has gripped it in recent years.”

Lawmakers, senior staff members and other experts agree that a combination of divided government, thin majorities, the running battle for Congressional control and an emphasis on national security caused a decline in the old-school legislative give-and-take that will be required to deliver major health, energy and education measures to President Obama.

“We have been miniaturized,” said Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine and a veteran of health care negotiations. “You have three talking points on a card. We are going to have to be taught and relearn the process, crack the notebooks.”

Congress has not even managed to produce its basic spending bills on time in recent years and has exhausted considerable energy dealing with recurring tax and Medicare snags. Big bills have been few and far between — the 2003 Medicare drug plan and a 2007 energy law are examples — as lawmakers nibbled around the edges of problems.

“This is going to be the year of the big lift,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. “After eight years of delay and deny, it is time. I think the public has a right to expect to see, given the economic challenges, the big ones tackled.”

I think that’s right, but if the fact that all of this seems unusual tells us quite a bit about what happened to Congress under the Bush years. The problems were multifold. We had a president, for example, that didn’t have a policy agenda, and didn’t ask lawmakers to do much. There were several years of Bush’s presidency in which there were no real policy debates over sweeping domestic issues at all. Social Security came up briefly in 2005, and immigration generated some attention in 2007, but for a two-term president, Bush simply didn’t have a policy wish-list.

What’s more, since Republican lawmakers tended to look at the government as a parliamentary system — they took direction from Bush/Cheney, and didn’t have an agenda of their own — it wasn’t as if Congress spent a lot of time sending bills to the president’s desk.

Given all of this, it’s almost amusing to see the Hill wake up from an apparent slumber and ask, “Wait, we’re supposed to actually work?” The NYT report even added, “As members of Congress and analysts look at the daunting demands for legislation emanating from the White House, some wonder if Congress is up to the task.”

“Up to the task” of, you know, passing legislation. The institution is being asked to thinking about pressing crises and shaping policy proposals — as if it were the federal legislative branch.

Now, there are all kinds of reasons to believe Congress will falter when asked to rise to the occasion. There are Republican demands that all bills require super-majorities to pass. There are conservative Democrats who aren’t comfortable passing a popular progressive agenda. The House and Senate are often on different pages. Too often, too many Democratic senators embrace “fecklessness” and “parochialism.”

But if we’re looking for excuses, the notion that lawmakers “aren’t used to working so much” shouldn’t be one of them.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.