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The most dysfunctional Congress ever?

Polls suggest yes, as partisanship limits legislative productivity

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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.”

Another aspect of Congressional dysfunction is growing partisanship. Stewart says the most vocal leadership in Congress is now “stridently ideological,” in contrast to the American public, which he says is “very practically-oriented.”

According to several measures, polarization is on the rise, and thus ideological overlap between the two parties is practically non-existent.

The National Journal, for instance, compiles annual data on Congressional voting records, and finds that in 2010 and 2011, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have moved so far away from each other that no Democrat had a voting record to the right of any Republicans, and no Republican had a voting record to the left of any Democrat.

In the House, only six Republicans compiled a voting record to the left of the most conservative Democrat. Partisan division hasn’t always been so stark: In 1982, when National Journal first started collecting this data, the voting record of 58 senators — the majority — fell somewhere in between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat.

This “ideological sorting of the parties,” as Stewart calls it, dates all the way back to 1965, when African Americans were brought into the electorate. As he explains, the Democratic Party was once comprised of Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, while the Republican Party was made up of various conservative groups.

But when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the South flipped to Republican control, liberals from the North migrated to the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party became the home of the conservative movement.

Later, Ronald Reagan, who Stewart calls a “polarizing figure,” stepped up this trend to separate the parties based on ideology. The Tea Party is the most recent manifestation of this growing division, Stewart says, and is “pulling the Republican Party to the right, further to the right than the American electorate.” Meanwhile, he says, there’s “no radical left goading the Democratic Party on.”

However dysfunctional Congress may be right now, Schulman points out that the legislative branch has always been unpopular. “There have only been a few times when Congress has had a higher approval rating than the president,” he says. “Even when the president’s approval rating was low, Congress’ was even lower.”

As for the historically abysmal approval numbers, Schulman says this is part of a larger trend towards the distrust of institutions. “Confidence in Congress, churches, doctors and universities have all gone steadily down since the mid-1960s, with the exception of the military,” he says. “What you’re seeing is a long-term historical trend of lack of trust not only in government, but in all kinds of institutions of public life.”

So what’s the solution? Stewart says that Americans must remember that gridlock is a “feature” of the country’s political system. “Our Constitution was designed to slow down and thwart quick action,” he says. “And I think that’s what we’ve gotten.”

Beyond that, he says, unlike this year’s elections — when, despite historically-low approval ratings for Congress, Americans chose to send the overwhelming majority of incumbents back to Capitol Hill — voters must be willing to give their Congressman the boot.

“If you don’t like gridlock, and you’re a Republican, you have to be willing to vote for Democrats,” he says. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that’s the only mechanism we have.”