When we set out to write a book about the growing extremism in American politics about 18 months ago, we thought that the 112th Congress was the worst we had seen in our four decades in Washington. However, the fight over the debt limit, the fiscal cliff and the farm bill – and the shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration – convinced us it has been the worst Congress ever. Despite its dysfunction, there are also widespread misconceptions about the 112th Congress and what lies ahead. Let’s correct a few of them.
1. The 112th Congress was as bad as the 80th “do-nothing” Congress during the Truman era.
The comparison is completely unfair – to the 80th Congress. Harry Truman’s improbable comeback to win the 1948 presidential election was fueled by his relentless campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress of 1947-48.
That Congress had many parallels with the 112th – it pitted a hostile, conservative Republican House against an activist, liberal president.
But the 80th Congress was unfairly stuck with the do nothing label. It enacted a respectable 906 laws, including the Marshall Plan, one of the most consequential initiatives of the 20th century. It created the Defense Department and the National Security Council as part of a sweeping reorganization of our national security apparatus.
In contrast, the 112th Congress enacted the smallest number of laws in modern history, fewer than 250 (some of which are still awaiting presidential action).
2. President Obama wasn’t adept at working with Congress.
Robert Caro’s latest volume about Lyndon Johnson prompted much talk about the good old days when presidents plied members of Congress with food and drink, and twisted arms to achieve national goals. And Bob Woodward’s latest best-seller found Obama lacking in his high-stakes negotiations in 2011 to reach a grand bargain with House Speaker John Boehner on the debt ceiling.
Throughout and after the fiscal cliff negotiations, commentators bemoaned a lack of presidential leadership in speaking honestly to the public about our fiscal imbalance and presenting a plan for controlling entitlements and raising revenue. This is nonsense.
Leadership is contextual. LBJ, thrust into today’s congressional environment, would be bewildered and frustrated; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is no Everett Dirksen, and Boehner is no Gerald Ford. Throughout his first term, Obama faced uncompromising opposition. Republicans acted like radical insurgents determined to make the president a one-termer.
3. Boehner was the big loser.
A constant refrain throughout the 112th Congress was that Boehner was a weak speaker. His 2010 warning to his party colleagues against using the debt limit to force spending cuts went unheeded.
Backbenchers routinely objected to leadership compromises and denied the speaker a majority on the House floor – most recently on his Plan B legislation during the fiscal cliff negotiations. His leadership team was more of a threat than a source of support.
But Boehner’s problem was a lack of followership, not leadership. His party conference was filled with zealots who had an animus toward Obama. Many of his colleagues were far more worried about primary challenges from the right than about pressure from their leaders in Congress.
4. Debt-limit debacles will become business as usual in Congress.
From 1960 to August 2011, Congress voted 78 times to increase the debt limit, 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents.
Political gamesmanship was routine: Many lawmakers not of the president’s party would oppose increasing the debt limit, claiming fealty to fiscal discipline; partisans of the president would vote aye, noting a responsibility to govern and protect the full faith and credit of the United States.
Many of the votes were close and done at the 11th hour. But as we have noted, the leaders of both parties always knew that they would find the votes to keep the United States from default. The 2011 faceoff was the first time the minority party used the debt limit as a hostage.
In two months, Republicans will try to do it again. But this time should be different. First, the president has made clear that he will not play this game. Second, the business and financial communities, largely absent from the 2011 debate, are speaking up about their opposition to routine threats not to raise the debt limit. Third, the public is more aware of the negative consequences of gambling with America’s credit.
5. The 113th Congress will be as unproductive as the 112th.
There was not much in the 2012 elections to suggest that the deep pathologies in the American political system have been ameliorated. Republicans retained their majority in the House, and the conference moved further to the right. Moreover, the GOP demand for major spending cuts – with the sequestration, continuing spending resolution and debt-limit deadlines looming in the next two months – suggests that this will be another contentious do-nothing Congress.
But there are reasons to believe otherwise. Electoral prospects for Republicans have dimmed considerably, removing some of the incentives for opposing the president. The election brought a startling opening for a comprehensive immigration bill. New natural gas reserves provide an opportunity to craft a bipartisan approach to energy production and conservation. Gun-control legislation is suddenly more feasible.
Not all of these things are likely to happen. But if even a few do, it would mean a productive record for the 113th Congress compared with its dismal predecessor.