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The most dysfunctional Congress ever?

Polls suggest yes, as partisanship limits legislative productivity

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 12/13/2012, 3:07 p.m.

With the 2012 elections safely behind him, President Barack Obama now faces the formidable task of striking a deal with Congress to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

After the debt ceiling debacle of 2011, in which Congressional Republicans threatened to let the United States default on its debts if President Obama refused to cut spending and lower taxes, the president and Congress set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2012 to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit over the next decade. Failing to meet this goal would trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases that many experts have said could lead to another recession.

Despite the gravity of the situation, negotiations between Democrats and Republicans are at a standstill. But this is nothing new.

From the debt ceiling fight, which resulted in the first-ever downgrading of the U.S. credit rating, to House Republicans voting on 33 separate occasions to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to make President Obama a one-term president, the 112th Congress has been defined by partisanship, obstructionism and an inability to get things done, leading many to wonder: Could this be the worst Congress in history?

Most Americans seem to think so. According to Gallup, Congress’ approval rating hit an all-time low of 10 percent in August of this year, and hasn’t been above 20 percent since June of 2011. Other polling outlets showed Congress dipping to a 9 percent approval rating.

To put this in perspective, even Richard Nixon held onto a 24 percent approval rating during the Watergate scandal. Scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who have each observed Congress for more than four decades, agree with the American people.

In their recent article, “Yes, Congress is that bad,” they write: “We have never seen them this dysfunctional.”

So far, the 112th Congress has only passed 196 new laws, putting it on track to be the least productive legislative branch since World War II — even worse than the “Do-Nothing Congress” Harry Truman once chastised. By comparison, the Civil Rights era witnessed the height of legislative productivity, with 1,028 bills passed into law between 1955 and 1957, and 936, 800 and 885 new laws produced in the three subsequent terms of Congress.

While these years of hyper-productivity accompanied Democratic super-majorities, other divided Congresses have not been nearly as impotent as the one today. During Ronald Reagan’s first term, for example, Republicans held the Senate while Democrats held the House, and together were able to come up with 473 new laws.

This failure to pass legislation is not an accident, says Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rallying behind Mitch McConnell’s call to make President Obama a one-term president, “The main thing Republicans in Congress did was grind policymaking to a halt, and tried to structure as many embarrassing votes as possible to make Democrats look like leftists,” Stewart explains.

To do this, they abused the filibuster, says Bruce Schulman, director of the Institute for American Political History at Boston University. “Until about 10 years ago, if you wanted to have a filibuster, you actually had to have one person hold the floor around the clock ... [so] filibusters were rarely invoked,” he explains. “Now they don’t even have to do that. If you don’t have the 60 votes and a filibuster is threatened, you won’t even bring something up for debate. Both sides have acquiesced.”