Members of Congress: We’re the Worst Ever

What does it mean when even the most skilled lawmakers in Congress are giving up?

National Journal
Lucia Graves
March 11, 2014, 8:23 a.m.

Grid­lock and ac­ri­mo­ni­ous par­tis­an­ship are noth­ing new to vet­er­an law­makers. But in an in­ter­view pub­lished Monday in The Hill, they said something that is: The 113th Con­gress just might be the most ter­rible ever.

“It’s cer­tainly the worst Con­gress since I’ve been in Con­gress,” said Rep. Henry Wax­man, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat who’s served on Cap­it­ol Hill for 40 years. “We’ve got­ten very little done.”

And Wax­man, who was first elec­ted in 1972, has the con­gres­sion­al bona fides to make that dia­gnos­is.

It’s not just that he’s been there a long time; he knows how to work the sys­tem. “I have prob­ably passed more le­gis­la­tion in­to law than any sit­ting mem­ber of the House,” Wax­man told Na­tion­al Journ­al back in April, “with the pos­sible ex­cep­tion of John Din­gell.” (At least one ana­lyst con­firmed his self-as­sess­ment.)

Din­gell, the longest-serving mem­ber in his­tory, also called the 113th Con­gress more un­pro­duct­ive than any he’d seen. “We only passed 55, 57 bills,” the Michigan Demo­crat told The Hill. “That in­dic­ates a very low level of pro­ductiv­ity.”

Wax­man and Din­gell are part of what Na­tion­al Journ­al has re­ferred to as “The Ex­odus of Prob­lem Solv­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill.” As Norm Orn­stein wrote in Feb­ru­ary, the re­tir­ees share a com­mon char­ac­ter­ist­ic: “They rep­res­ent a heav­ily dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of those who would fit com­fort­ably in a Prob­lem-Solv­ing Caucus if one ex­is­ted.” If the most skilled politi­cians have giv­en up, what can we ex­pect of the rest of them? The up­shot is that the re­mainder of the year will likely be even more un­pro­duct­ive than what we have seen so far, with policy areas like im­mig­ra­tion and tax re­form dwarfed by con­cerns about midterm elec­tions.

Of course, most law­makers re­tire for per­son­al reas­ons. But Din­gell has ex­pli­citly cited dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the body’s ef­fic­acy as among his in­cent­ives to leave, telling The New York Times that Con­gress had be­come “ob­nox­ious.”

That sen­ti­ment is re­mark­ably in tune with Amer­ic­ans’ per­cep­tions of Con­gress. In Decem­ber of last year, Gal­lup polling found voters’ ap­prov­al of Con­gress av­er­aged 14 per­cent in 2013, the low­est since their polling began. Earli­er this year, the body’s ap­prov­al rat­ing stood at just 13 per­cent.

There’s been plenty of spec­u­la­tion about why those num­bers are so low. A new work­ing pa­per pub­lished by two polit­ic­al-sci­ence gradu­ates sug­ges­ted it’s be­cause politi­cians tend to vastly over­es­tim­ate how con­ser­vat­ive their elect­or­ate is. And an art­icle in For­bes some­what pre­dict­ably blamed the me­dia. But it’s time we con­sidered a dif­fer­ent al­tern­at­ive.

Maybe, just maybe, Amer­ic­ans think Con­gress is the worst ever be­cause it is, in fact, the worst ever.

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