Why this is the worst Congress ever

  • Article by: EZRA KLEIN , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 1:59 PM

The 112th Congress is no ordinary congress. It's a very bad, no good, terrible Congress. It is, in fact, one of the very worst congresses we have ever had.


House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, joined by other House GOP leaders.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press - Ap

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The House of Representatives recently voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On its own, such a vote would be unremarkable. Republicans control the House, they oppose President Barack Obama's health reform law, and so they voted to get rid of it.

But here's the punchline: This was the 32nd time they voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Holding this vote once makes sense. Republicans had promised that much during the 2010 campaign.

But 32 times? If doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result makes you insane, what does doing the same thing 32 times and expecting a different result make you? Well, it makes you the 112th Congress.

Hating on Congress is a beloved American tradition. Hence Mark Twain's old joke, "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

But the 112th Congress is no ordinary congress. It's a very bad, no good, terrible Congress. It is, in fact, one of the very worst congresses we have ever had. Here, I'll prove it:

1. They're not passing laws.

Let's start with the simplest measure of congressional productivity: the number of public bills passed into law per Congress. The best data on this comes from the annual "resume of congressional activity," which goes back to the 80th Congress - the same Congress President Harry Truman dubbed

the "do-nothing Congress." But they did a lot more than this Congress:
The 112th Congress - this Congress is three-quarters done, and it's not yet half as productive as the next least-productive Congress. Plus, Congress doesn't typically work in last-minute sprints; most bills are passed in the first half of a congressional session. As such, it's very unlikely that the 112th will manage to pull even with anyone else.

Now you may say that this simply reflects divided government. But while there are many instances of divided government - the 104th Congress, for instance, when Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries faced off against President Bill Clinton and still managed to pass 333 public laws - there's no session of Congress with such a poor record of productivity.

2. They're hideously unpopular.

According to Gallup, the 112th Congress set a record for unpopularity in February, when only 10 percent of Americans said they approved of the job Congress was doing. The previous record was set in December 2011, when only 11 percent approved of Congress. So this Congress is No. 1 . . . in being hated by their constituents.

3. They're incredibly polarized.

The best measure of congressional polarization - which is to say, the distance between the two parties - is the DW-Nominate system developed by political scientist Keith Poole. DW-Nominate works by measuring coalitions.

It looks to see who votes together and how often. And it works. Its results line up with both common sense and alternative ways of measuring ideology, like the scorecard kept by the American Conservative Union.

So what does it say about this Congress? Well, the 112th Congress is the most polarized since the end of Reconstruction:

Another way of seeing the same thing is to look at Congressional Quarterly's "Party Unity" score, which measures the number of "in which a majority of Democrats opposed a majority of Republicans."

In 2011 - so, in this Congress - the House set a new record on that measure, with 75.8 percent of its roll call votes pitting Democrats and Republicans against each other:

This is what you get when you vote to repeal the other party's signature legislative achievement 32 times.

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