My folks are in town, and the three of us went out to lunch yesterday. Conversation turned to politics, as it often does, and my Dad and I got into it a bit. All very friendly, of course, we get along fine. But we do disagree on politics. One of the things I got from my Dad is a life-long habit of reading a daily newspaper, staying informed. Another is an occasional tendency to write letters to the editor. Plus, he’s Norwegian; I inherited that too. Which means, we’re both a bit stubborn. A much nicer word than the one my wife uses for it: pigheaded. So there we were, in a Wendy’s, arguing politics, and we discovered we had one issue about which we agreed. We both think Congress is hopeless.
The 112th Congress may well be the worst Congress in American history. It’s certainly the worst in recent history. Some of the pre-Civil War Congresses were pretty uniquely terrible, what with the arguing about slavery and beating each other half to death with canes and all. But they had an excuse–they represented regions of the country that hated each other. One region thought it was immoral to enslave human beings; another region thought it was just swell. You can see how they all got a mite testy.
But the 112th Congress is terrible without much cause for it. The country is both prosperous and militarily unchallenged. Disagreements on policy shouldn’t be anywhere near as divisive as in previous eras. But boy, are they.
Some facts: the 112th Congress has passed fewer laws than any since the Second World War. The 80th Congress? The Congress Harry Truman called the “Do-Nothing Congress?” A Congress so terrible that Truman won re-election by campaigning against it? They passed 908 laws. The 112th has passed. . . 112. That’s right, the 112th Congress has passed 112 bills so far–there are still a few months left, so they have time to get it up to, say, 120.
The 112th Congress is also widely loathed. Their approval rating is at 9%. That’s lower than the IRS, lower than the airline industry, lower than the banks that caused the financial crisis, lower than Nixon during Watergate, lower than Paris Hilton. That’s right–more people admire Paris Hilton than admire the 112th Congress.
They haven’t passed a budget in three years. They fought like Ali-Frazier over something as completely routine as raising the debt ceiling. They have never passed an appropriations bill on time. They couldn’t agree, last week, on a motion to correct a spelling error in a bill.
The Founders created a government of checks and balances. They wanted it to be difficult to pass legislation, they wanted the House and Senate to have to agree (to have to compromise), they wanted the President to have veto power, but for Congress to have the ability to over-ride a veto. But I’m sorry; there’s no way they envisioned this.
Congress is broken.
So Ezra Klein was going through all this the other night (guesting for Rachel Maddow), and he talked to Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, fellows from the Brookings Institute, and they have a new book out on this Congress. And they say the problem is political extremism. The Republican Party has gone crazy, essentially, the Tea Party has driven the national discourse so far to the right that compromise has become anathema. And I agree, in part, with that argument. I mean, when Mitch McConnell (Senate minority leader) says his goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term President, and when he then uses the filibuster more than ever before in history, it’s not hard to assign blame. The debt ceiling debacle was clearly Tea Party-driven. John Boehner clearly lost control of his caucus, and their refusal to compromise drove the whole debate.
But I’m a liberal. So’s Ezra Klein. He’s my kind of liberal, very policy driven, very focused on research and results, but we’re on the same side. The Brookings Institute is a liberal think-tank.
And yet and yet. What’s driving this debate is a sense that ‘business as usual’, that the governing consensus that has mostly driven policy since WWII, that the world of compromise and finely tuned legislative solutions to problems has failed. That our debt isn’t ‘a concern,’ but freaking terrifying. And thus the Tea Party: valuing ideological purity, valuing principle over compromise. It’s actually a problem for Mitt Romney too–he’s not really trusted by the hard-core Right, and so he has to lock in to policy positions that can’t really be what he actually believes.
The financial crisis was not just fiscally destabilizing, but it was demoralizing, it left us all shaken and afraid. If President Obama had proposed a stimulus that had worked, I think Congress might have come around. But the stimulus he proposed was much too small, and it’s hard to argue that it was actually needed.
The 112th Congress reflects a deeply divided, economically troubled, terrified America. They can’t function, because nobody can agree on what function they should serve. We’re not unified as a nation–perhaps we shouldn’t be. But the level of vitriol right now, floating around the internet, is impressive.
We could, say, change the rules of the Senate. Make it harder to filibuster, for example, make it harder for the minority to stop bills from coming to a vote. But they could function under the current rules, if they really wanted to.
We need to get over it. We need to talk policy, share ideas, find places to compromise, not accuse political opponents of treason. But it’s not going to happen quickly. We need a couple of elections first. And it would help if the winners of those elections weren’t crazy. On either side.