In his second term, President Harry Truman condemned the snail's pace at which lawmakers actually got some work done, labeling it a "Do-Nothing" Congress. After all, the 80th Congress (1947-1948) only passed 906 bills over its two-year period.
The current Congress, by comparison, has passed just 196 bills, easily the lowest total since the U.S. House Clerk's office started keeping track. Consider the progress in chart form, which should drive home just how unproductive the 112th Congress (2011-2012) really is.
In fairness, I should note that the current Congress still has another month to go, and I suppose it's possible that there will be a flurry of progress and constructive policymaking. But given partisan differences and a shrinking calendar, I'm pretty comfortable with the notion that this will be the least productive of any modern Congress by a large margin.
This is not, by the way, the inevitable result of divided government (one party controlling the House; the other party controlling the Senate). There have been plenty of other Congresses, some quite recently, with a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, but their bill totals weren't nearly this anemic.
When it comes to U.S. House races, there are still some unresolved contests, but the Republican majority will remain intact in the next Congress. The GOP-led chamber will find its majority smaller than it is now, but we're talking about a shift from a 240-190 advantage to about a 235-200 advantage.
But there is another way to look at the same data. What about the raw popular vote? The Washington Post's Aaron Blake noted that, in the overall picture, more voters backed Democratic House candidates.
According to numbers compiled by the Post's great Dan Keating, Democrats have won roughly 48.8 percent of the House vote, compared to 48.47 percent for Republicans.
Despite losing the popular vote, Republicans are set to have their second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression.
The numbers seem to back up what we've been talking about on this blog for a while: Redistricting drew such a GOP-friendly map that, in a neutral environment, Republicans have an inherent advantage.
Right. A narrow plurality of Americans may have preferred Democratic House candidates, but it didn't matter -- the district lines were too carefully drawn in the GOP's favor after the 2010 midterms. The result is a fairly unusual political landscape: according to one count, this is the first time since 1952 that a party won the congressional "popular vote" but remained in the House minority.
To be sure, I realize this is something of a gimmick. The raw vote totals are interesting but inconsequential, just as in the presidential race, which is decided by electoral votes.
This is political trivia that lacks practical value, but I wouldn't dismiss it entirely just yet.
As the debates over taxes, spending, debt-reduction, and plenty of other policy areas proceed, Republicans are certain to argue that "the American people" elected a GOP-led House to, at a minimum, prevent Democrats from pursuing their agenda. Boehner, Cantor & Co. will insist they're simply reflecting the electorate's will.
And they'll be wrong. Most Americans voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, Democratic Senate candidates, and even Democratic House candidates.
At this point four years ago, congressional Republican leaders made a very careful, very deliberate decision about how to deal with an Obama White House: they wouldn't deal with an Obama White House.
As part of the party's driving ambition to undermine the Obama presidency -- and make Obama a one-term president -- John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and others gambled on an all-obstruction, all-the-time strategy. Even if the Obama administration was prepared to embrace GOP ideas, Republican leaders would accept no compromises and make no concessions. It was time, they said, for scorched-earth partisanship, not constructive policymaking.
That was then. Four years later, President Obama's name will never appear on a ballot again, and if voters are feeling frustrated, the only policymakers who'll feel the brunt are members of Congress. With that in mind, the message from GOP leaders is noticeably different.
On a conference call with House Republicans a day after the party's electoral battering last week, Speaker John A. Boehner dished out some bitter medicine, and for the first time in the 112th Congress, most members took their dose.
Their party lost, badly, Mr. Boehner said, and while Republicans would still control the House and would continue to staunchly oppose tax rate increases as Congress grapples with the impending fiscal battle, they had to avoid the nasty showdowns that marked so much of the last two years.
Members on the call, subdued and dark, murmured words of support -- even a few who had been a thorn in the speaker's side for much of this Congress.
As a practical matter, the manifestation of this attitude is unclear. If Boehner is eager to "avoid the nasty showdowns" in the next Congress, does that mean fewer government-shutdown threats? When it's time to raise the debt ceiling, will Boehner resist calls to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage until Democrats meet non-negotiable demands? Time will tell.
But the mere fact that Boehner is signaling to his caucus that he wants less partisan warfare -- and that his caucus is grudgingly prepared to proceed accordingly -- is, at a minimum, a shift in tone. The Speaker's comments came the same week as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Wall Street Journal, "The country doesn't need a tax increase; we have a spending problem. But they control a big part of the government and they insist on taxes."
By some measures, the 112th Congress isn't just awful; it's literally the worst in American history. The Republican-led House, in particular, has been a national disgrace -- it doesn't pass bills; it undermines the national economy; it fails to complete basic tasks; it ignores jobs and focuses on the culture war; etc.
Around the time this U.S. House voted to end Medicare altogether, polls showed Congress with the lowest approval rating since the dawn of modern polling. American voters in the 2010 midterms elected some of the most manifestly unqualified policymakers in a generation, and the result is a Congress that's hard to watch without covering your eyes.
Given all of this, one might think voters would deliver a massive rebuke in U.S. House races, throwing the unpopular bums out. And yet, very little seems to have changed -- Democrats needed a net gain of 25 seats to reclaim the majority, and they appear to have come about 22 seats short.
How is this possible given public revulsion towards Congress? Sahil Kapur explains:
Experts attribute the GOP's comfortable victory to the timing of the 2010 tea party wave, which gave Republicans huge redistricting advantages that let them alter the congressional map to their benefit.
"Much of this was pre-baked through the redistricting process," Larry Sabato, a leading election expert, told TPM. "The GOP won the House at just the right moment, in a wave election that gave them many governorships and state legislatures in a Census year. Bingo. Many weaker House members elected in 2010 who would have lost in their old districts in 2012 have been given better districts that will reelect them."
Consider Pennsylvania, for example. Seth Michaels noted that if you add up all of the votes Pennsylvanians cast in U.S. House races in 2012, you'll find a pretty even split, with Democrats enjoying a slight edge, 2.71 million to 2.64 million. Given that the state has 18 members in the House, you might think that would translate to 9 or 10 Democrats, right?
Wrong. State GOP lawmakers carefully drew the lines for partisan ends -- only five of the state's 18 members of Congress will be Democrats, even though a majority of Pennsylvania voters backed Democratic candidates.
The game, in other words, was pretty much rigged from the start.
For many Americans, the idea of divided government -- one branch led by one party, one branch led by another -- has a certain appeal. The division can serve as a kind of check against partisan excesses, at least in theory, while forcing policymakers to strike compromises.
But that was before the 112th Congress changed public attitudes.
Gallup ran this report yesterday noting the spike in the number of Americans how believe it's better to have the same party control both the White House and Congress. It's reached a record high, and it's the first time in a decade that this is a plurality view.
There's no great mystery here. Congressional Republicans, after creating a debt-ceiling crisis, multiple government-showdown crises, and making even routine governing nearly impossible, have offered a brilliant civics lesson on the dangers of divided government.
For what it's worth, the idealized notion of divided institutions finding common ground to advance public interests isn't ridiculous on its face, but it's dependent on having two mainstream political parties, sincere in their commitment to governing. When one abandons institutional norms and becomes radicalized, divided government doesn't lead to more compromise, it leads to less.
And as the Mann-Orstein thesis tells us, "When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges.... The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
Gallup's report on the results also raised an interesting point to keep an eye on: "As the 2012 election approaches, these findings suggest that Americans may be somewhat less open to ballot splitting than in prior years."
Here's a fascinating new campaign ad out of Michigan, aired by Dan Benishek in the state's 1st congressional district. Take a look and pay particular attention to how the candidates are identified, because it's a classic example of a larger 2012 trend.
For those who can't watch clips online, the spot shows the Republican, identified only as "Dr. Dan Benishek," attacking his Democratic challenger, identified as "career politician" Gary McDowell. The ad, repeating ridiculously untrue GOP talking points, accuses the Democrat of supporting Medicare cuts (which don't really exist) and "a massive tax increase on families" (which also doesn't exist). It concludes by asking voters in Michigan's 1st to "trust ... a doctor," while showing Benishek in scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck.
If you knew nothing about the district, you'd assume Benishek is a Republican challenger, running against an entrenched incumbent Democrat. But as it turns out, that's backwards -- Benishek is not only a congressional incumbent running for re-election, he's one of the Republican politicians who voted to eliminate Medicare and replace it with a private voucher scheme.
Asked about the fact that Rep. Benishek neglects to mention these pertinent details in his ad, the lawmaker's spokesperson said those facts are "irrelevant" to the commercial's point.
And what about his "career politician" challenger? The congressman is running against a man who served on a county commission and in the state legislature, not in Congress.
The point of an ad like this is obvious: count on public ignorance to make it seem as if (1) the incumbent congressman isn't actually the incumbent congressman; and (2) the out-of-office challenger is the incumbent congressman.
Of course, Michigan's Benishek isn't the only U.S. House member trying to pull a fast one on voters. The New York Timesreports today on the larger phenomenon: "Bragging about one's voting record used to be a staple of political advertising, and a career in Congress was worn as a badge of honor. But this year, many House candidates are deciding not to mention their service here, a blunt acknowledgment of the dim view that a vast majority of voters have of Congress."
To put it mildly, there's a lot of this going around in 2012.
In Iowa, thanks to redistricting, Rep. Tom Latham (R) is running against Rep. Leonard Boswell (D), who's described in Latham attack ads as a "longtime congressman" even though Latham has been in Washington longer than Boswell has.
In New York, Rep. Ann Marie Beurkle (R) is facing former Rep. Dan Maffei (D), who's described as "DC Dan Maffei," even though Beurkle is actually serving in DC and Maffei isn't, and when he was there, Maffei only served one term.
And if these stunts seem familiar, it's because it's been going on for much of the year. We talked in August about several Republican incumbents, including Reps. Bill Johnson (R) of Ohio and Frank Guinta (R) of New Hampshire, who are engaged in the same cynical tactics, hoping to fool voters who don't know the difference.
Look, I realize Congress' popularity has reached depths unseen since the dawn of modern polling. I also realize there's a reasonable case to be made this is the worst Congress ever. But wouldn't it be easier and more honorable for incumbents to say something like, "I'm working hard every day to make Congress better"? Or, "With all the bums in Congress, my common-sense solutions are needed now more than ever"?
Warren Buffett and President Obama in the Oval Office.
The U.S. House of Representatives has a lengthy to-do list. Among the measures the chamber has to tackle before the end of the year is the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act, postal reform, the soon-to-expire wind tax credit, and trying to avoid a dangerous fiscal cliff. Instead of rolling up their sleeves, however, House Republicans have decided to wrap up early and go home.
But before they go, the GOP majority has a couple of cheap stunts to vote on instead of real work.
The House on Wednesday passed Republicans' own version of the Buffett Rule, which allows wealthy Americans to voluntarily pony up to reduce the deficit.
The bill, labeled the Buffett Rule Act, passed by voice vote, meaning Democrats and Republicans agreed with it. Under the legislation, which would still need Senate approval, taxpayers could check a box on their taxes and send in a check for more than they owe to the IRS.
"If Warren Buffett and others like him truly feel they're not paying enough in taxes, they can use the Buffett Rule Act to put their money where their mouth is and voluntarily send in more to pay down the national debt, rather than changing the entire tax code to inflict more job-killing tax hikes on hard-working Americans," said Rep. Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who wrote the bill.
It's worth emphasizing a nagging detail: the law already allows Americans to send the Treasury extra money to pay down the debt. Yesterday's stunt made Republicans feel better about themselves, but instead of real work, they tackled a symbolic gesture to create an opportunity that already exists.
But the larger problem is just as annoying. Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), keep pushing this notion that the very wealthy who support measures like the Buffett Rule in the interest of tax fairness should just "shut up" and donate to the debt if they so choose.
Let's not lose sight of how deeply foolish this is.
It's not that complicated, but GOP policymakers are still struggling with the basics.
The problem that Buffett and other wealthy people are trying to solve by calling for higher taxes on their class isn't simply that they as individuals would like to be contributing more towards the tax burden, but can't. Rather, the problem as they've identified it is a society-wide one: We need a massive boost in revenues to keep society functioning at acceptable levels and to address profound and intractable fiscal problems that threaten the country's future.
This problem will not be solved if Warren Buffett writes a check. Buffett's point is that the scale of the problem requires his class as a whole to chip in a bit more to solve it.
We're a massive, modern nation with a vast economy, a large debt, and by modern standards, low taxes. We face real challenges, but they're not the kind of challenges individuals can hope to resolve on their own, piecemeal. Whether Republicans understand this or not, we need cooperative solutions built around shared action.
Making additional tax contributions voluntarily -- in other words, asking for a little more only from those willing to pay a little more -- is ridiculous. The wealthy can afford modest tax increases, which in turn can help pay down the debt Republicans pretend to care about, while shielding many of those who can least afford to take another hit.
In his weekly podcast, Mitt Romney said over the weekend that President Obama is dealing "passively" with pressing issues, including the looming automatic spending cuts and tax increases. There's certainly some passivity on display, but I think Romney is looking at the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Get ready to say "adios" to the House.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Friday that the House would not hold scheduled votes the first week in October, pending the Senate vote on the continuing resolution. That means the House won't be in session again until after the election; the next House votes are scheduled for Nov. 13.
The House will only be in for three days [this] week; Wednesday through Friday. Likewise, the Senate is expected to cancel its October session after it passes the CR.
In fairness, it's not unusual for the House to wrap up early, especially in an election year, but heading home in mid-September is unusually early. And given that this Congress, arguably the worst ever, hasn't actually done anything meaningful, and has an important list of undone tasks, it's hard to defend Cantor's new schedule.
And what's pending? Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act, sequestration, postal reform, and the fiscal cliff. There's also the Veterans Job Corps Act and the soon-to-expire wind tax credit.
There is, in other words, a lot for Congress to do, and all of it is being pushed off until the lame-duck, post-election session. Someone's dealing with pressing issues "passively," but it's not the president.
House Speaker John Boehner got the outcome he wanted yesterday.
It hasn't generated much interest over the summer, but there's been a looming threat of a pre-election government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year. It seemed unlikely, and it lacked the drama of the previous three government shutdown threats, but the possibility remained.
To recap, Democrats and Republicans struck a deal last summer on spending levels for the upcoming year, which seemingly cleared the way for a smooth budget process. In April, however, House Republicans said they no longer liked the agreement they'd already accepted, and demanded even deeper spending cuts. Without an agreement, we'd see a shutdown this month.
Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) managed to keep his caucus in line, and the chamber agreed to keep the government's lights on through March.
The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a six-month stopgap government funding bill on a 329 to 91 vote, putting aside the partisan warfare of the past 18 months in bipartisan resolve to avoid a budget showdown ahead of the November election.
The Senate is expected to pass the same measure late next week, providing funding for agencies for the first six months of the fiscal year and avoiding any threat of a government shutdown when the year ends Sept. 30.
The far-right Club for Growth stomped its feet a bit yesterday, urging Congress to reject the bill, but the group was largely ignored.
So, did Republicans blink? Actually, yes. Five months ago, Republican leaders said they were no longer satisfied with the agreed-to spending levels, and would shut down the government unless Democrats accepted additional cuts. Democrats refused to even consider additional talks.
And as of yesterday, the GOP decided the unacceptable spending levels weren't so bad after all.
It's tempting to think Republicans backed down due to Democratic resolve, but that's probably only part of the picture -- Boehner and other GOP leaders also didn't want to be on the hook for shutting down the government, and drawing national ire, so soon before the election.
Regardless of motivations, however, the Senate will approve the spending measure next week, President Obama will sign it, and we probably won't see any additional legislative action until the post-election lame-duck session -- which is bound to be very interesting this year.
The FBI probed a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff -- and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.
During a fact-finding congressional trip to the Holy Land last summer, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) took off his clothes and jumped into the sea, joining a number of members, their families and GOP staff during a night out in Israel, the sources told POLITICO. Other participants, including the daughter of another congressman, swam fully clothed while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea, according to sources who took part in the trip.
"A year ago, my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some Members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit," Yoder said in a statement to POLITICO.
Other swimmers included Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.). Explanations for the swim varied, but "several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in."
Ya don't say.
In fairness to the raucous Republicans, it's not at all clear why the FBI looked into this. Unless there's reason to believe crimes were committed -- and there's not much in the article that points in that direction -- it's hard to understand why the FBI would care. Perhaps there are relevant details we don't yet know.
Regardless, I'm struck by the larger context. The incident was in August 2011, shortly after these same Republican lawmakers, for the first time in American history, held the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, rattling markets, undermining the economy, and causing a downgrade in our debt rating. They were in Israel, where Jesus is said to have walked on water -- this gives "kiss my ass, this is a holy site" a whole new meaning -- and as part of an official delegation, they were representing all of us, traveling on our dime.
And they nevertheless thought it'd be a good idea to start partying a little too hard.
For the record, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was reportedly the senior most GOP lawmaker in Israel on the trip, and "rebuked the 30 lawmakers the morning after" the incident. It's unclear, however, if any of the offending members were punished outside of the scolding.
Remember after the 2010 midterms, when congressional Republicans promised a whole new day on Capitol Hill? GOP policymakers had heard the voice of "the people" and Congress, at long last, would be different.
And in a way, it is different. Congress, as an institution, has never been popular, but its standing has reached depths that were hard to event imagine.
Ten percent of Americans in August approve of the job Congress is doing, tying last February's reading as the lowest in Gallup's 38-year history of this measure. Eighty-three percent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.
Incidentally, it's against this backdrop that Mitt Romney thought it'd be a good idea to find a notoriously high-profile figure from this Congress and make him a running mate. I don't understand it, either.
As for the 2012 congressional elections, it's worth keeping in mind that when a public institution is reviled to such a degree, electoral volatility seems likely. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the House Republican majority will probably hang on, but we've never gone into an election with Congress this unpopular.
Why are some Republican members of Congress pretending to run as challengers, instead of the incumbents they are, hoping their own constituents are just dumb enough to fall for it? This poll goes a long way in explaining why.
For those who can't watch clips online, the ad features a man named Bill Johnson standing in a field, reflecting on his 26 years in the Air Force, and complaining about "politicians in Washington." In the ad, Johnson goes on to blast his Democratic opponent, whom he describes as "Congressman Charlie Wilson."
Why is this interesting? Because Bill Johnson is the incumbent. The ad never mentions that he's actually already in Congress, making him one of the "politicians in Washington" Johnson presumably doesn't like. "Congressman Charlie Wilson" lost in 2010, but is seeking a rematch.
It's part of a larger trend: conservatives who loved running against incumbents, levering anti-Washington attitudes in competitive districts, aren't quite sure what to say when the shoe is on the other foot.
The House Republican freshmen ran for Congress as the ultimate outsiders determined to clean up Washington. But they've been here two years now; things are still a mess; and now, they want voters to send them back for another two years.
What to do? The answer, based on their early campaigning: Don't acknowledge you're an incumbent.... As they kick off tough reelection battles, the GOP newbies are taking pains to distance themselves from a Capitol that remains toxic, casting themselves as the same insurgent forces that swept to power in 2010.
In New Hampshire, for example, we're seeing the exact same situation play out -- Rep. Frank Guinta (R) recorded a robocall recently that says, "Hi, this is Frank Guinta, candidate for Congress, running against Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter. I'm running to end the broken culture of Washington."
If it weren't easy to fool people, folks like Guinta wouldn't try to pull cynical stunts like these, pretending he's the challenger, rather than the incumbent.
But the truth is, politicians who won in 2010, vowing to make Washington better and more effective, got to Capitol Hill and made matters much worse. Given the number of reasons this is the worst Congress ever, these GOP incumbents have to hope for widespread ignorance for the stunt to pay off.