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.

4. They've set back the recovery.

In 2011, congressional Republicans came closer than ever before to breaching the debt ceiling and setting off a global financial crisis. In the end, they pulled back moments before we toppled into the abyss. But by then, they had already done serious damage to the recovery.

Early in the year, the economy seemed to be gathering momentum. In February, it added 220,000 jobs. In March, it added 246,000 jobs. In April, 251,000 jobs. But as markets began to take the Republican threats on the debt ceiling more seriously, the economy sputtered.

Between May and August, the nation never added more than 100,000 jobs a month. And then, in September, the month after the debt ceiling was resolved, the economy sped back up and added more than 200,000 jobs.
Payrolls weren't the only evidence that the debt ceiling fight interrupted the recovery. You can see it in Gallup's data on consumer confidence, too.

"Confidence began falling right around May 11, when "House Speaker John Boehner first announced he would not support increasing the debt limit," observed economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers in a column for Bloomberg View. "It went into freefall as the political stalemate worsened through July. . . . After July 31, when the deal to break the impasse was announced, consumer confidence stabilized and began a long, slow climb that brought it back to its starting point almost a year later."

Perhaps, after this near-death experience, you would expect the leaders of the 112th Congress to be chastened. Your naivete is touching. Among congressional Republicans, the debt-ceiling debacle was viewed as something of a success - and certainly a strategy worth repeating.

"Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Then we will go through the process again." Boehner was even more direct. "We shouldn't dread the debt limit. We should welcome it."

5. They lost our credit rating.

After the debt ceiling debacle, Standard & Poor's downgraded America's credit rating for the first time in the country's history. Why? Because the 112th Congress convinced them that they could no longer trust the U.S. government to refrain from crashing the global economy for no good reason. Or, as they put it, "the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges."

6. They're terrible even when they're "super."

The supposed upside of the deal to lift the debt ceiling led to the creation of the Special Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction - better known as "the supercommittee."

The supercommittee, which was comprised of an equal number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers from both the House and the Senate could, with a simple majority vote, send its recommendations to the rest of the Congress, where they couldn't be filibustered, amended or otherwise blocked.

So that was the carrot: Figure this out, and, in a stunning break from business-as-usual in the sclerotic 112th, the members of the supercommittee could get some big done.

There was also a stick: Failure would trigger the so-called "spending sequester," which would cut more than a trillion dollars in dumb, blunt ways that neither party liked and that would badly damage a slowly recovering economy.

So how did the supercommittee do? They failed. Now the sequester is armed and members of Congress are frantically trying - and, as of yet, failing - to find a way around it. That's life in the 112th: Having proved incapable of solving one of the country's problems, they voluntarily created another problem that they also don't know how to solve.

7. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal.

Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal. Repeal.

Every time House Republicans take this vote, it's time they could be spending on other issues. Other issues like, for instance, what they would do instead of the Affordable Care Act. They have voted to replace the Affordable Care Act exactly . . . never.

8. The budget shenanigans of Senate Democrats

In 2009, Senate Democrats passed a budget. In 2010, they marked one up in the Budget Committee but didn't bring it to the floor. Beginning in 2011 - so, in this Congress - they just stopped bothering with the whole budget thing altogether.

Publicly, they argue that budget resolutions aren't binding, and that the 2011 Budget Control Act - the legislation that resolved the debt ceiling standoff - has done the real work of the budget by setting discretionary spending levels for the coming years.

Privately, they say they see no reason to vote on a budget that House Republicans will never adopt. That's also the reason they haven't taken up President Obama's budgets. (This has led to the odd sight of Republicans bringing Obama's budgets to the floor so they can say Democrats voted against them.)

Republicans argue, correctly, that budgets, even when they don't pass, are where you lay out your vision for the country. Senate Democrats, in refusing to propose or vote for any budgets, are refusing to give voters that information.

9. They can't get appropriations done on time.

Arguably the most basic job of Congress is to fund the federal government - to simply keep the lights on. That's done through the annual appropriations process, which requires Congress to pass 13 appropriations bills by Oct. 1. This hasn't been happening lately.

Now, to be fair to the112th Congress, they're not the first Congress to fail to pass the required appropriations bills by the deadline. But most congresses manage to approve at least a few of them. In fact, the average is three. So how many appropriations bills did the 112th Congress pass by Oct. 1, 2011? Zero.

10. The transportation-infrastructure fiasco.

Surface transportation bills are where Congress deals with another of the most fundamental jobs of federal governance: Setting aside money for roads, runways, bridges, and subways systems, and other mainstays of our transportation infrastructure. Sen. Dick Durbin called them "the easiest bill⅛s⅜ to do on Capitol Hill.' At least, they used to be.

In 2005, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act. That bill expired in September 2009. But Congress couldn't agree on a replacement. What followed were 10 short-term extensions of the transportation funding. "Stopgaps," in congressional parlance.

Finally, on June 29 of this year, Congress passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. But rather than setting transportation policy for four or five years, as was the previous norm, it only set it for two years. And it left most of the major problems - like how to handle the the increasing inadequacy of the gas tax - for later.

11. The FAA shutdown

When it came time to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, House Republicans wanted to cut $16.5 million in subsidies to rural airports and to rewrite the rules around unionizing airports such that workers who didn't vote would be counted as "no" votes. Senate Democrats disagreed. On July 23, 2011, Congress ran out of time. This meant, in the midst of a severely depressed economy, 4,000 FAA workers and 70,000 airport construction workers were furloughed. The shutdown ended a few weeks earlier. The cost to the government from uncollected airline ticket taxes alone was $350 million.

12. Failing the Fed

Perhaps no single institution in Washington matters as much during an economic crisis as the Federal Reserve. And for most of the last six years, the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors has been missing a few members.

There's plenty of blame to go around here - including for the Obama administration, which was slow to name nominees and didn't prioritize their confirmation when Democrats controlled Congress - but the most ridiculous chapter of the story began in 2011, when Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, blocked the appointment of MIT economist Peter Diamond.

Diamond, who would win the Nobel prize in economics while Shelby was holding up his nomination, couldn't have had a better background: As an expert on labor market and pension issues, he was ideally situated to advise the Federal Reserve on the nation's short and long-term problems.

But Shelby wanted payback for Democrats blocking one of Bush's nominees in 2007. The problem was he couldn't come out and say so. Instead, he had to say this: "I do not believe he's ready to be a member of the Federal Reserve Board. I do not believe that the current environment of uncertainty would benefit from monetary policy decisions made by board members who are learning on the job."

Shelby's objection was transparently ridiculous. Previous nominees he had permitted to go through included Sarah Bloom Raskin, who was the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation; Kevin Warsh, who had worked for Bush; and Elizabeth Duke, who had been an executive at various banks.

None of them had experience making decisions about monetary policy. Nor did any of them have a Nobel prize in economics or a world-class understanding of labor-market frictions. But Shelby was unrelenting, and the nomination was eventually withdrawn. Eventually, Jeremy Stein, a Harvard economist, and Jerome Powell, an official in George H.W. Bush's Treasury Department, got named to the Fed, filling the board. Neither of them have a Nobel prize in economics, either.

13. The experts agree.

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein are probably the most respected scholars of Congress in Washington. For more than 40 years, they've been the staunchest advocates, and most respected interpreters, of the institution, tutoring legislators from both parties and serving on an almost endless number of commissions and projects dedicated to understanding and improving what they call "the First Branch."

Here's what they say about the 112th Congress:

"We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional."
14. Context.

If this was an age of peace, prosperity and rapid growth - say, 1997 - perhaps the 112th Congress's failures would be an amusing sideshow. But this is not 1997. When the 112th Congress was sworn in, unemployment was at 9.1 percent.

Since then, it's fallen to 8.2 percent. But that's been in spite of Congress's best efforts, not because of them. The 112th Congress has been an embarrassment - and its members know it.

As Rep. Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat from Tennessee who has served on and off in Congress since 1983, says, "America's problems have rarely looked so large, and Congress has rarely looked so small."


Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at The Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC, focusing on domestic and economic policymaking.

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