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Middle-Class Blues: The Unfunnies

 

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Growth of Family Income, 1947-2007

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Ezra Klein on the Worst Congress Ever

Good Riddance to Rottenest Congress in History

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.

Terrible Policy

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.

No Responsibility

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.)

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Between the humiliating and chaotic collapse of Speaker Boehner’s already ludicrously extreme Plan B and Wayne La Pierre’s deranged proposal to put government agents in schools with guns, the Republican slide into total epistemic closure and political marginalization has now become a free-fall. This party, not to mince words, is unfit for government. There is no conservative party in the West – except for minor anti-immigrant neo-fascist ones in Europe – anywhere close to this level of far right extremism. And now the damage these fanatics can do is not just to their own country – was the debt ceiling debacle of 2011 not enough for them? – but to the entire world.

Those of us who have warned for years about this disturbing trend toward ever more extreme measures – backing torture, pre-emptive un-budgeted wars, out-of-control spending followed, like a frantic mood swing, by anti-spending absolutism of the most…

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Obama broadly follows Ronald Reagan’s (second-term) security policy, George H.W. Bush’s spending policy, Bill Clinton’s tax policy, the bipartisan Squam Lake Group’s financial-regulatory policy, Perry’s immigration policy, John McCain’s climate-change policy, and Mitt Romney’s health-care policy (at least when Romney was governor of Massachusetts). And yet he has gotten next to no Republicans to support their own policies.

Indeed, like Clinton before him, Obama has been unable to get Republican senators like Susan Collins to vote for her own campaign-finance policies, McCain to vote for his own climate-change policy, and – most laughably – Romney to support his own health-care plan. Likewise, he has been unable to get Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan to endorse his own Medicare cost-control proposals.

There are obvious reasons for this. A large chunk of the Republican base, including many of the party’s largest donors, believes that any Democratic president is an illegitimate enemy of…

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Michael Tomasky: The Wane of John McCain

… Rice did indeed hide some information from the public on Sept. 16—but it’s the kind of information that has always been concealed from public consumption, for the kinds of national-security-related reasons that the Washington establishment has always agreed upon. Historically, of course, if any person or persons have objected to this kind of filtering, they’ve typically been on the left. Think Daniel Ellsberg first and foremost. The right always defended this practice, on the grounds that making possibly sensitive information public too soon without the proper running of all the intelligence traps could only provide aid and comfort to the commies or the terrorists, as the case may be.

McCain certainly comes from this school. But this, you see, was different. Different from what, and different how, are both good questions. Different from those dozen or so attacks on American embassies while George W. Bush was president? It’s true…

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As Democrats gather for turkey or tofurkey in Brooklyn and Berkeley and, yes, even in Birmingham, they should offer thanks for Mitt Romney. Not just for being a clumsy candidate in a year when a more agile one might have knocked off Barack Obama—but for the broader benefit he served the Democratic Party as a powerful clarifying force.

In an era of resentment toward unaccountable financial elites, they put forward the ultimate financial elite, a man who sliced and diced companiessheltered his income offshore, and, above all, was eye-poppingly incapable of discussing his wealth and the economic anxieties of those less fortunate in ways that might put voters at ease. The muddle that had clouded the political debate since Obama’s inauguration parted. On Election Day, when exit pollsters asked voters whom they thought the candidates favored, a plurality, 44 percent, thought Obama favored the middle class, while 53 percent…

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Tom Toles Cartoon

Over the edge of the ‘fiscal cliff’

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