By Ezra Klein
On January 3rd, the 112th Congress of the United States of America finally ends. Thank God.
To properly evaluate the 112th, consider the record of its predecessor, the 111th Congress, which ran from January 2009 to January 2011. The fighting 111th passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the “stimulus”), the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. It passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and expanded both the Serve America Act for community service and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It created significant new anti-tobacco regulations, ratified the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty, ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the armed forces and agreed to the 2010 tax deal, which extended the Bush tax cuts in return for the passage of middle- class stimulus.
The laws passed by the 111th Congress were controversial, particularly among Republicans. They were also big, bold initiatives that, if not always fully equal to the size of our problems, surely perched on the outer edge of Congress’s capacity to deliver solutions. Love it or hate it, the 111th Congress governed. No Congress in recent history has a record of productivity anywhere near it.
What’s the record of the 112th Congress? Well, it almost shut down the government and almost breached the debt ceiling. It almost went over the fiscal cliff (which it had designed in the first place). It cut a trillion dollars of discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act and scheduled another trillion in spending cuts through an automatic sequester, which everyone agrees is terrible policy. It achieved nothing of note on housing, energy, stimulus, immigration, guns, tax reform, infrastructure, climate change or, really, anything. It’s hard to identify a single significant problem that existed prior to the 112th Congress that was in any way improved by its two years of rule.
The 112th, which was gaveled into being on Jan. 3, 2011, by newly elected House Speaker John Boehner, wasn’t just unproductive in comparison with the 111th. It was unproductive compared with any Congress since 1948, when scholars began keeping tabs on congressional productivity.
When it ends, the 112th Congress will have passed about 220 public laws — by far the least of any Congress on record. Prior to the 112th, the least productive Congress was the 104th, from January 1995 to January 1997. Not coincidentally, that Congress also featured a new Republican House majority determined to ruin a Democratic president in advance of the next campaign. The 104th, however, passed 333 public laws — almost 50 percent more than the 112th. The 112th stands alone in its achievement of epic failure.
Of course, raw productivity statistics can mislead. After all, if the 112th Congress’s laws were particularly worthwhile, or if its low productivity reflected a period of political calm and economic growth, the slow rate of legislating might even be a good thing. In this case, however, the raw data mislead in the other direction. The 112th Congress wasn’t merely unproductive: It was devastatingly counterproductive.
The 112th found legislating so difficult that lawmakers repeatedly created artificial deadlines for consequences and catastrophes intended to spur them to act. But like Wile E. Coyote with his endless supply of Acme products, when the 112th set a trap, the only sure bet was that it would explode in its collective face, forcing leaders to construct yet another hair-trigger legislative contraption.
The near-shutdown of the federal government in early 2011 was the first of these self-detonated disasters, the near-breach of the debt ceiling in August 2011 was the most damaging, and the fiscal cliff was the dumbest. In each case, Congress mainlined a dose of fear and uncertainty into an economy already beset by too much of both. In each case, the deadline failed to spur responsibility; instead, Congress punted on hard decisions while setting up a new deadline to supplant the old, discarded one.
In that way, the 112th ended as it began: by creating a mess it couldn’t clean up. The resolution, such as it is, of the fiscal cliff simply sets up another fight in the weeks ahead over the debt ceiling and sequestration. Continued fear and uncertainty over the impending battle is the legacy of the 112th to the nation’s economy. Thanks, guys.
As a result of its good works, the 112th Congress was the least popular since pollsters began keeping score. According to the Gallup Organization, the 112th’s approval rating fell to 10 percent in February 2011 and again in August that year. Those are the lowest readings in Gallup’s 38 years of surveying. When another polling firm, Rasmussen, asked Americans in March 2011 how they’d feel about the U.S. turning into a communist country, 11 percent said they’d approve. So congratulations, 112th: You were, at multiple points, less popular than communism.
The 112th didn’t even achieve the narrow political objective that Republican leaders sought. Insofar as there was a theory behind their effort to grind the U.S. government to a halt by making Congress a destructive force, it was that American voters would blame the failures of Washington on the party in charge of the White House, leading to President Barack Obama’s defeat. Yet Republicans were so mistrusted that, despite the previous two years of ineffectual governance and a weak economy, Obama was re-elected by a margin of five million votes, and Democrats won more votes than Republicans for House and Senate seats, as well.
The source of the 112th’s dismal performance is easy enough to diagnose. According to political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who’ve developed a highly respected gauge of political polarization, the 112th was the most polarized Congress in U.S. history, with House Republicans exhibiting a particular leap in partisanship. Moreover, the results of the 2010 election divided power among House Republicans, Senate Democrats and a Democratic president, ensuring that party polarization would lead to political paralysis.
Unfortunately, the polarization and paralysis exhibited by the 112th Congress are functions of long-term political trends, and there’s no evidence that they’ll lift anytime soon. So while the 112th Congress was surely one of the most broken and incompetent in our history, the worst is probably yet to come.
(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)