Polarized. Divided. Terrible. The worst. These are the end of days for the 112th Congress. With one month left until the dreaded, and ultimately very similar 113th Congress takes over, the most unpopular Congress in history is coming to an end. The lack of legislation, the political brinksmanship and the general lack of vision that the 112th Congress has displayed during its term has been staggering. Even in with the most basic of tasks, like paying the bills, this Congress has failed. Ezra Klein (using charts) broke down the number of appropriations passed by this Congress as of October 1, 2011. While Congress is required to pass 13 appropriations, Klein has noted that this particular legislative body has passed none.
Back in July, Tom Horner and Tim Penny also wrote that the 112th not only fails to get its work done, but “actually blocks the efficient operation of the federal government.” Politics, it seems, outweighs solving the economic crisis we have been reeling from since 2008. So how does the 112th stack up against other perceived congressional failures? Not well. It turns out that even with two of the most divided, strained and unpopular congresses this country has ever seen, things still got done in Washington.
The 112th Congress vs. the 37th Congress
The fact that virtually no laws have been passed is another issue. True, we live in a time of divided government, but the current state of polarization has paralyzed the 112th Congress. Not only that, but when compared other dysfunctional congresses the 112th’s seem even more embarrassing. The 37th Congress and the 80th Congress come to mind when thinking of dysfunction. New York Magazine even went so far as to call the 37th Congress “awful.”
Why “awful”? It might have something to do with the fact that the 37th Congress had the distinction of presiding over the Civil War. That congress (with one third of its members gone) served, appropriately, in an unfinished Capitol building. Mark Greenbaum’s defense of the 37th Congress in the New York Times comes down to one thing: legislation. Moreover—the actual passing of legislation, which is something the current Congress doesn’t seem to know much about.
In the two years it was in session, the 37th Congress passed significant pieces of legislation that produced economic growth, ended slavery, and saved the Union. On top of that, the 37th passed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act—a major education initiative that was the catalyst for our country’s public colleges and universities. The 37th also invested in infrastructure by passing the Pacific Railway Act. That bill led to America’s first nationwide rail system which ultimately spurned more economic growth. While it’s hard to overlook the fact that both Houses had a Republican majority that allowed bills to pass through more quickly, it’s also says something about the focus this group of men had on legislating. Funding the Civil War, investing in our country’s infrastructure, and major agricultural initiatives were all party of the 37th Congress’ legacy. All of these bills, by the way, were passed under the relentless stresses of the Civil War, with gruesome battles being fought only miles away. The 112th Congress and the 37th Congress are not even comparable—one Congress actually passed legislation and the other hasn’t.
The 112th Congress vs. the 80th Congress
If there is a comparison between President Obama’s relationship with the 112th Congress, it is President Truman’s with the 80th. When President Harry Truman was asked by a reporter if the 80th Congress had been a “Do Nothing” Congress, the president answered, “Entirely.”
The “Do Nothing” congress was opposed to almost all of the Truman’s “Fair Deal” proposals and actively sought to pass pro-business legislation. Truman, who was up for re-election decided to campaign against Congress and their pro-business record. According to biographer David McCullough, Truman had one strategy: “Attack, attack, attack.” Truman, slamming Congress on the campaign trail said:
Republicans in Washington have a habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people. They have a hard time hearing what ordinary people of the country are saying. But they have no trouble at all hearing what Wall Street is saying. They are able to catch the slightest whisper from big business and special interests.
While it seems President Obama took a page out of the Truman playbook, one thing that is different is that the 80th Congress was actually able to pass some legislation, some of them actually proposed by the president. In the end, the “Do Nothing” Congress was able to do something. They were able to pass the Truman Doctrine as well as the National Security Act of 1947. And while the 80th Congress was opposed to Truman’s policies, they weren’t as polarized as the current Congress is with Obama.
The failures of the 112th Congress run deeper than merely opposing President Obama’s policies. Congress has become so partisan, so incredibly nasty that not only does nothing get done, but the little legislation that has passed has little or no effect.
Reasons for failure
Everyone remembers the fights over the payroll tax extension and the debt ceiling debates last year. What did Congress (or more specifically House Republicans) get out of it? Not much. Public approval tanked, they almost stopped the recovery, and the S&P downgraded our credit rating. Why did this happen? Because Congress decided it wanted to play a game of political brinksmanship using the economy as a hostage. In the end, we all lost.
Instead of passing bills that could help create jobs, the House of Representatives held over 30 votes to repeal the president’s Affordable Care Act. Despite the fact that President Obama won re-election and the Supreme Court has said the ACA is constitutional, Speaker Boehner is vowing to repeal it yet again.
Of the 541 members in this Congress (minus vacancies), only seven are accountants. Of those seven, only two are in the Senate. So it should come as no surprise that the Senate failed to even draft a budget, let alone pass one. While he was on the campaign trail this year, Vice President Biden made a habit of slamming Paul Ryan’s budget. “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value,” he said to crowds throughout the country.
What the vice president failed to acknowledge is the fact that Senate Democrats in the 112th Congress have not even presented a budget to the American people. It would appear that Senate Democrats believe their budget would be blocked by House Republicans, so they’re not even going to try. “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value,” Biden said. Apparently Senate Democrats weren’t listening.
Nobody likes you
According to Gallup, “less than 20% of Americans have approved of Congress each month since June 2011.” People never really “like” Congress—it is, after all, America’s favorite punching bag, but when approval ratings hit a record-low of 10%, it’s safe to say people don’t just dislike you Congress. They hate Congress.
Over 12,000 people have served in Congress since 1789. Since that time, those congressional members have seen a civil war, great depressions, and the threat of terrorism. During those times of struggle, Congress was able to pass legislation that helped the country become stronger. The 112th Congress, however, has done the opposite. Instead of working together to pass legislation, they have paralyzed themselves and turned our government into little more than a joke. Now that the election is over, the 112th Congress has its sights set on preventing a cabinet appointment, going off the fiscal cliff, and, of course, preparing for the holidays. If there’s one thing members of the fading 112th Congress deserve, it’s a break from all that work they didn’t do.
The end of days is near for the 112th Congress. The real question is, will anyone really miss them?