This congressional session is historic: It’s the least productive, most unpopular in memory and makes the 80th Congress, famously labeled “do nothing” by President Harry Truman, appear prolific.
For the first time, public approval of Congress is below 10 percent. This session, which adjourns at the end of the week, has passed fewer bills than any session since World War II — the recent deeply diluted budget measure a rare semi-significant exception — and cheap political games have dominated.
The blame is bipartisan, and the White House made some egregious errors. Still, this Congress bears a Republican stamp, with the tone and agenda often set by the right wing of the party.
The Senate-passed immigration bill languishes in the House, even though it commands support from a majority of the members. Republican leaders won’t bring it up lest they face a revolt from the party rank and file.
The farm bill is stalled. It has many flaws, but a major impediment is right-wing Republicans who insist that food stamps for the neediest must be slashed.
The recently completed budget agreement could have been a big deal, with more than $1 trillion in long-term deficit reduction through major entitlement changes and closing tax loopholes or preferences.
That could have won White House support and, with pressure, a majority of reluctant congressional Democrats. It would have been a shot in the arm to business confidence and markets. But the Republican right would have gone ballistic; that deal never got on the table.
The Senate, with a few exceptions, was almost as dysfunctional as the House. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to change the rules to make it easier to confirm presidential nominations is a dangerous precedent. More dangerous was the Republican minority’s willingness to abuse the rules by waging scores of filibusters against President Barack Obama’s nominations, more than all other presidents combined. Using the filibuster routinely, thus requiring a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done, is unsustainable.
Then there is serious oversight, which should be possible even in a partisan environment. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan proved that with the Wall Street investigations he led with Republican colleagues such as Tom Coburn, Okla., and John McCain, Ariz.
A decade ago, in the House, Democrat Henry Waxman of California and Republican Tom Davis of Virginia, teamed up to investigate — and reform — postal and procurement practices and whistle-blower protections. Together, they investigated steroid use in baseball and the scandal involving the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of former National Football League star Pat Tillman.
This session, Darrell Issa, the California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has held hearings on the Internal Revenue Service, the deaths of Americans in Libya, the Affordable Care Act and Attorney General Eric Holder. These proceedings have been characterized by unsubstantiated charges, rogue staff behavior, misleading leaks of selective information and a refusal to consider anything that might prove contrary to the chairman’s objectives. With a reckless disregard for facts, Mr. Issa calls his targets liars. He has been an embarrassment to more than a few fellow Republicans.
Correctives aren’t easy. Some advocates see reforming the partisan way House districts are drawn as the solution and are encouraged that mainstream conservative powerhouses such as Karl Rove’s money machine and the Chamber of Commerce are threatening to take on the party’s right. The former is unlikely and wouldn’t affect the Senate, the latter a paper tiger. The only right-wing incumbent targeted so far is a U.S. representative from Grand Rapids, Mich.
Ironically, said political scientist Charles O. Jones, academics used to see more disciplined political parties as the way to encourage responsible governing. “Now, we see narrow margins encouraging tight discipline and leaving little space for cross-party negotiation,” he said, with “remarkable insensitivity to the political costs of unwavering party unity.”
The only way this spiral ends is an election that either ratifies or repudiates the Republican right.
Albert R. Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.