And you thought the height of partisanship in Congress was during the Tom DeLay years during the presidency of George W. Bush?
The height of blind partisan politics is right now. What has resulted is a Congress barely able to perform basic legislative functions — much less solving major issues. As the first session of the 112th Congress comes to a welcomed close, the three bright and shining failures of the year are clear:
1. The April showdown that brought the federal government hours from shutdown;
2. The failure to routinely raise the debt ceiling in August; and
3. The debt Super Committee.
The 112th Congress did harm to the economy on two of those occasions. The first time was after the debt deal back and fourth in August. During that failure of leadership, American markets saw a historic drop. The moment was topped by the United States losing its AAA credit rating. The folks at Standard & Poor’s figured out what participants in the poll awarding the 112th Congress with the lowest approvals in history did: That the institution in its current form is unable to carry out routine legislative action without drama.
Tossing a country in recession towards the brink of default wasn’t enough. From that deal another failure was born: The Debt Super Committee. After wasting two months of time, resources and staff, six Democrats and six Republicans re-affirmed last month what was already suspected in microcosmic form: That the dysfunction would continue right to the very end of the year.
Predictably, polls show the level of respect for Congress is at the lowest point in history. Who is surprised? Back in late December 2010 in the last days of the 111th Congress, the “lowest approval” number was 14%. That “all time low” was easily topped in October when the 112th Congress received only a 9% approval rating of those polled.
A U.S. House that found time to pass “In God We Trust” as the national motto — something that had already been done in 1956 — could not figure out how to avoid damaging the nation’s credit rating. Over on the Senate side, 60 remained the new 51 — the new number of “a majority.” Translation: The Senate was only slightly less dysfunctional than the House.
Politic365 asked Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who has been in the institution since 1977, if this was one of the worst Congresses.
“I think it is the worst I’ve seen. The Democrats have hardly been willing to debate important bills because they’re so afraid of difficult amendments,” said Hatch who has been in the Senate since 1977.
Hatch has a point: Election politics and PR has controlled almost everything in Congress. “Both sides can be at fault here. But they have the majority and control and they haven’t been willing to bring up difficult issues that need to be brought up,” Hatch added.
In April they came hours away from shutting the government down. In August they failed to simply raise the debt ceiling, choosing instead to become wrapped up in an extortion scheme driven by hyper-partisan all-or-nothing confrontation. Real life drama such as confronting the 15 trillion dollar deficit, 49 million Americans in poverty or 14 million Americans unemployed fell back into obscurity.
“This House has failed to take up a single major bill this year,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) on the House floor this week. “The do-nothing 112th Congress has no major bill to its credit,” and has been focused off on “side issues,” she added. Other members felt that it wasn’t just Congress but something bigger.
“I think it’s not just Congress but the entire political process. People look at TV debates and what they see here and they just see dysfunctionality,” said Rep. Allen West (R-FL). “It’s amazing to me that once upon a time I was part of an organization with the highest approval ratings in the country and now ‘m part of an organization that has the lowest approval ratings in the country,” observed West, who was in the Army for 22 years.
By July, House Majority Leader Cantor was unable to hold a public town hall without protesters and police present. Only four months after the newly controlled GOP House took charge, overflow crowds protesting Medicare cuts showed at Rep. Paul Ryan’s town halls. Ryan was using back door exits from his town halls soon after the “Ryan Budget” was debuted. This week Ryan announced a bi-partisan approach to Medicare with Democrat Sen. Rony Wyden. Will the bi-partisan effort succeed? Or will 2012 be like 2011?
Lauren Victoria Burke writes on Congress and politics from Capitol Hill in Washington. She is the creator of the blog Crewof42 which focuses on African American members of Congress.