Column: Five Myths About the Worst-Ever Congress
When we set out to write a book about the growing extremism in American politics about 18 months ago, we thought that the 112th Congress was the worst we had seen in our four decades in Washington. However, the fight over the debt limit, the fiscal cliff and the farm bill — and the shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration — convinced us it has been the worst Congress ever. Despite its dysfunction, there are also widespread misconceptions about the 112th Congress and what lies ahead. Let’s correct a few of them.
1. The 112th Congress was as bad as the 80th “do-nothing” Congress during the Truman era.
The comparison is completely unfair — to the 80th Congress. Harry Truman’s improbable comeback to win the 1948 presidential election was fueled by his relentless campaign against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress of 1947-48. That Congress had many parallels with the 112th — it pitted a hostile, conservative Republican House against an activist president.
But the 80th Congress was unfairly stuck with the “do nothing” label. It enacted a respectable 906 laws, including the Marshall Plan, one of the most consequential initiatives of the 20th century. It created the Defense Department and the National Security Council as part of a sweeping reorganization of our national security apparatus.
In contrast, the 112th Congress enacted the smallest number of laws in modern history, fewer than 250 (some are still awaiting presidential action). At least 40 of those were trivial acts such as post office namings or commemorative resolutions. What was the 112th’s equivalent of the Marshall Plan? The debt-limit debacle, which led to the first-ever downgrade of the nation’s credit rating.
2. President Barack Obama wasn’t adept at working with Congress.
Robert Caro’s latest volume about Lyndon Johnson prompted much talk about the good old days when presidents plied members of Congress with food and drink, and twisted arms to achieve national goals. And Bob Woodward’s latest bestseller found Obama lacking in his high-stakes negotiations in 2011 to reach a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner on the debt ceiling. Throughout and after the fiscal cliff negotiations, commentators bemoaned a lack of presidential leadership in speaking honestly to the public about our fiscal imbalance and presenting a plan for controlling entitlements and raising revenue. This is nonsense.
Leadership is contextual. LBJ, thrust into today’s congressional environment, would be bewildered and frustrated; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is no Everett Dirksen, and Boehner is no Gerald Ford. Throughout his first term, Obama faced uncompromising opposition. Bold public pronouncements and sweet private talk had no chance of winning GOP votes in 2011 and 2012.
3. Boehner was the big loser.
A constant refrain throughout the 112th Congress was that Boehner was a weak speaker. His 2010 warning to his party colleagues against using the debt limit to force spending cuts went unheeded. Backbenchers routinely objected to leadership compromises and denied the speaker a majority on the House floor — most recently on his “Plan B” legislation during the fiscal cliff negotiations. His leadership team was more of a threat than a source of support.
But Boehner’s problem was a lack of followership, not leadership. His party conference was filled with zealots who had an animus toward Obama. Many of his colleagues were far more worried about primary challenges from the right than about pressure from their leaders in Congress. Under these conditions, Boehner’s success in getting the Senate’s fiscal cliff deal to the House floor for an up-or-down vote, in spite of the opposition of a majority of Republicans, was an example of effective leadership in the face of severe adversity.
4. Debt-limit debacles will become business as usual in Congress.
From 1960 to August 2011, Congress voted 78 times to increase the debt limit, 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents. Political gamesmanship was routine: Many lawmakers not of the president’s party would oppose increasing the debt limit, claiming fealty to fiscal discipline; partisans of the president would vote aye, noting a responsibility to govern and protect the full faith and credit of the United States.
Many of the votes were close and done at the 11th hour. But as we have noted, the leaders of both parties always knew that they would find the votes to keep the United States from default. The 2011 faceoff was the first time the minority party used the debt limit as a hostage.
In two months, Republicans will try to do it again. But this time should be different. First, the president has made clear that he will not play this game. Second, the business and financial communities, largely absent from the 2011 debate, are speaking up about their opposition to routine threats not to raise the debt limit. Third, the public is more aware of the negative consequences of gambling with America’s credit.
So even if early March is gut-wrenching, it does not mean that Congress will again take the country to the precipice. Even most of the willing hostage-takers are not that reckless.
5. The 113th Congress will be as unproductive as the 112th.
There was not much in the 2012 elections to suggest that the deep pathologies in the American political system have been ameliorated. Republicans retained their majority in the House, and the conference moved further to the right. Moreover, the GOP demand for major spending cuts — with the sequestration, continuing spending resolution and debt-limit deadlines looming in the next two months — suggests that this will be another contentious “do-nothing” Congress.
But there are reasons to believe otherwise. Electoral prospects for Republicans have dimmed considerably, removing some of the incentives for opposing the president. The election brought an opening for a comprehensive immigration bill. Gun-control legislation is suddenly more feasible. One more round of spending cuts and revenue increases totaling about $1 trillion over the next decade, with tax reform a major source of the latter, would at least stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio for the medium term and free policymakers to focus on economic growth, and health-care delivery and financing reforms.
Not all of these things are likely to happen. But if even a few do, it would mean a productive record for the 113th Congress compared with its dismal predecessor.
Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.