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Blogs / Leadership

Worst Congress Ever? Then We're the Worst Electorate Ever

The Capitol from the east front on July 9, 2012. (Michael Catalini)

July 13, 2012


That bright young man, the liberal blogger Ezra Klein, has concluded that the 112th Congress is "the worst Congress ever," and listed 14 reasons why.

It is hard to differ with some of Klein's arguments. It doesn't require legislative wizardry to approve appropriations bills, a task that this Congress somehow finds arduous, or for the Senate Democrats to pass a budget. And yes, it was nothing short of silly for House Republicans to vote 33 times to repeal all or parts of the Affordable Care Act.

But some of Klein's objections are framed by ideology. A Congress that doesn't pass a ton of legislation may be the "worst" to a liberal, but downright heroic to conservatives. Few acts of Congress restore liberty to the citizenry.

And if this is indeed the "worst Congress ever," it must then follow that we are the worst American electorate--ever. As Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts reminded me, when I returned to reporting on him and his colleagues last January: "We are not appointed."

Congress is polarized because the American public is polarized. Does that make it the "worst" Congress? Or merely the most polarized?

Given what we've been through in the last decade--two wars, a depression and the continuing, wrenching transformation of American culture, work and society--that polarization is perhaps forgivable.

"When a torrent sweeps a man against a boulder, you must expect him to scream, and you need not be surprised if the scream is sometimes a theory," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.

Here is the other lesson that's been drilled into me, from folks of such different political temperament as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Rep. Tom Price, the chair of the conservative Republican Policy Committee. This "worst" class of lawmakers may be among our most sincere.

Yes, there is bafflement and anger and frustration on each side of the aisle over the folks across the way. But hatred? Not so much. There is at least recognition, and even some begrudging regard, for how they fight for what they believe. They are, of course, Americans.

Great, charismatic leaders can overcome such polarization. If this is indeed the "worst" Congress, part of the blame must lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., where the last two presidents--George W. Bush and Barack Obama--were elected on a platform of relieving the partisan enmity in Washington and instead, in their first terms, launched polarizing ideological crusades. They got what they wanted--transformative changes that they believed were of paramount importance--but at a cost.

Now we're in an interregnum. It takes time for things to shake out. The 112th Congress does not stand alone in American history: its legacy will be measured as part of a continuum--with that of the 110th and the 111th and what happens in the 113th Congress and future sessions.

Ultimately, its legacy will not be measured by the number of bills passed, or the FAA shutdown or the transportation bill, but for its role in a story whose ending is unwritten and unknown.

Two decades from now, this Congress may indeed seem like the "worst." Or, just possibly, it may be viewed as the mucky but obligatory middle act in a defining moment in American history.

Photo: The east front of the Capitol (Michael Catalini/National Journal)

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