Worst. Congress. Ever.

Americans have complained for years that their government is broken. This time they're right.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Dana Carvey had a character during his years on Saturday Night Live who was a crotchety old man complaining about how much better everything was "in my day," the imagined halcyon times of his past. After almost 42 years immersed in the politics of Congress, I have to check myself regularly to avoid falling into the same trap. When I came to Washington in 1969, for example, the city was riven with division and antagonism over the Vietnam War, which segued into the impeachment of a president, followed by many other difficult and contentious moments. In this case, though, Carvey’s old man would be right: The hard reality is that for all their rancor, those times were more functional, or at least considerably less dysfunctional, than what we face with Congress today.

In 2006, I wrote a book with the Brookings Institution’s Tom Mann called The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, in which we reflected on the high level of dysfunction in Congress that had been building since the 1990s. From the Clinton years through the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, partisan division had been accompanied by a growing ideological gulf in Congress, and along with it had come a decline in institutional loyalty and other norms, the near disappearance of meaningful debate and deliberation, and a sharp decline in the "regular order," the adherence to and respect for the rules and procedures that normally operated in the legislative body.

Two years later, we wrote a second edition to reflect the change that had come with the return of Democratic leadership to Congress, noting at least some marginal areas of improvement, albeit within the larger context of continued dysfunctionality. We were hopeful that Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008, along with the robust gains for his party in both houses of Congress — a sharp contrast with the controversial 2000 presidential election and the razor-thin margins in Congress that followed — might bring a return to more functional government and a proud and functioning First Branch. That did not mean a supine and kneejerk Congress bending to the will of the president, but one vigorously asserting its independent role, through oversight and other means.

Quite obviously, that didn’t happen. Three years after publishing the second edition we could write a third, entitled The Far More Broken Branch. Yes, the 111th Congress, during the first two years of the Obama presidency, produced an impressive spate of major legislative accomplishments, from a stimulus package to a sweeping health-care reform bill to major financial regulatory reform. But all were passed after contentious, drawn-out, partisan battles that left most Americans less than happy with the outcomes. And look what we have now: a long-term debt disaster with viable bipartisan solutions on the table but ignored or cast aside in Congress; an impasse over the usually perfunctory matter of raising the statutory debt limit placing the United States in jeopardy of its first-ever default; sniping and guerrilla warfare over two major policy steps enacted in the last Congress, health-care reform and financial regulation; no serious action or movement on climate change, jobs, or the continuing mortgage crisis; and major trade deals stalled yet again despite bipartisan and presidential support.

So what went wrong? Republicans, having been thrashed at all levels in 2008, did not respond to the voters’ rebuke by cooperating with the majority or trying to find common ground. Instead, repeating a tactic employed with great political success by Republicans in 1993 and 1994 against a newly elected President Bill Clinton, they immediately united fiercely and unremittingly against all the Obama and Democratic congressional initiatives. In the Senate they used delay tactics — the filibuster and the hold — in an unprecedented fashion, to block a large number of Obama administration nominees for executive branch positions and draw out debate to clog the legislative process and make an already messy business even messier. The session’s legislative accomplishments occurred because Democrats maintained enough discipline — and had large enough margins — to enact their bills with the support of Democrats alone. The health-care bill was able to make it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate because Democrats, for a brief moment, had exactly enough senators to overcome it. Both parties acted as if they were parliamentary parties, indivisible blocs rather than groups of individual actors casting votes for reasons besides partisan loyalty. But in a non-parliamentary system, built on checks and balances and a separation of powers, parliamentary parties simply cannot work. Accomplishments get delegitimized, and some areas like climate change, end up in total gridlock.

Combined with a struggling economy, the contentiousness and dysfunction brought a dramatic backlash against the status quo in the midterm elections, resulting in huge Republican gains in November 2010. In the House of Representatives, Republicans recaptured the majority handily; in the Senate, they gained enough seats to sustain a filibuster and put themselves in an extraordinarily strong position to recapture the majority in 2012 (23 Democratic seats will be up for reelection that November, versus only 10 held by Republicans). The GOP gains were fueled by an angry Tea Party movement, a backlash against government laced with a populist anger at and distrust of leaders; nearly all the newly elected members had a direct allegiance to or expressed some sympathy for the Tea Party. Their victories, they said, were a mandate to reduce government radically — and to roll over the president, if necessary, in the process.

Even so, the immediate post-election period, a lame-duck last gasp of the 111th Congress, appeared promising. Obama and Republican leaders in Congress, faced with the imminent expiration of all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, reached a wide-ranging agreement that extended the tax cuts, including those for the rich, while also providing a payroll tax cut and other mild stimulus measures favored by the president. The public approved — even though most elements of the compromise were individually unpopular, the fact that both parties worked together to solve a problem was itself popular.

But any expectation that bipartisan cooperation and compromise under divided government were going to be a prominent feature of the 112th Congress were soon dispelled when Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in an October 2010 interview that "single most important thing" he needed to achieve was making Obama a one-term president, as pure an expression of the permanent campaign as one could find. McConnell elaborated in an interview with the Atlantic, in which he explained why his Senate Republicans pursued a conscious policy of uniform opposition in Obama’s first two years: "We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals, because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan."

That approach — including a concerted effort to repeal or at least hamstring the implementation of Obama’s main policy achievements of the 111th Congress — was ramped up after the midterms. Republicans in the lame-duck session blocked the passage of any appropriations bills for the remainder of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2010, and put the spending measures into an omnibus package, called a continuing resolution, on a short leash. That led to an early and prolonged standoff over spending levels for that year. Many House Republicans demanded on the floor or in the press that there be no compromise with the president. But the plethora of problems not just between the parties but within them was underscored by the fact that an extraordinarily tough spending plan written by House GOP budget leader Paul Ryan was summarily rejected by his party’s conference, forcing him to go back to the drawing board and add tens of billions of dollars to proposed cuts. It was a clear case of political brinkmanship.

With most of the operations of the federal government set to lose their funding at midnight on April 14, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner reached a compromise, but one that involved fewer spending cuts than House Republicans had demanded. It passed — but only after 59 Republicans voted against their own speaker. Boehner was still able to win with a majority of Republicans joining a minority of Democrats, but the deal — highly controversial among Republicans as consisting more of smoke and mirrors than real budget cuts — did not leave him strengthened for future compromises. The agreement averted a shutdown of the government, thanks to Boehner’s first-hand recollection of the political havoc caused for Republicans by the government shutdown of 1995, in which then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was outflanked by Clinton and ultimately cast into the political wilderness.

But Boehner’s maneuvering had consequences all the same, setting the stage for the impasse we have today over the debt ceiling. The politics here have unfolded over several weeks, with outrageous statements, confrontation, and an unwillingness — especially on the part of House Republicans — to yield any ground to Obama, with a potential "grand plan" compromise discussed by the president and the speaker undercut by the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his angry conservative colleagues. It has resulted in a dangerous flirtation with the first breach in the debt limit in the nearly 100 years since the process was first applied, carrying with it the very real threat of economic catastrophe. It is possible, even likely, that there will be a rescue at the 11th hour or beyond to avert disaster. But it is also quite possible that there will be no agreement until it is too late, or an agreement that passes the Senate but fails in the House. Rating agencies, watching the farcical maneuvering, have warned that even if there is a late rescue, they may still downgrade America’s credit rating, making a last-minute deal a Pyrrhic victory.

In my four decades in Washington, I have regularly been asked by diplomats from a range of countries to explain the American political process, and especially the role of Congress. For those from parliamentary systems, especially, Congress is difficult to decipher. Explaining the idea behind a truly independent and powerful legislature, much less a political system, with its checks and balances and separation of powers designed by the framers of the Constitution not to act swiftly and decisively but rather to make it difficult to act swiftly and decisively, has been a challenge.

The American political process is inherently messy and disputatious. When I first came to Washington, in 1969, it was a period of divided government: A new Republican president, Richard Nixon, was faced with a Democratic Congress, marking the 15th consecutive year of their majority. Divisions were intense, particularly over the Vietnam War. But the divisions were not mainly along partisan lines. Among the strongest supporters of the Nixon approach to Vietnam were the Southern conservative Democrats (called "Boll Weevils" in honor of the insect that infects Southern cotton) who then made up about 40 percent of the majority in Congress, and also chaired most of the foreign policy and defense-related committees and subcommittees. Among the strongest opponents of Nixon’s Vietnam policy were the northern liberal and moderate Republicans (called "Gypsy Moths" for the bug that hits Northeastern hardwood trees) who made up about a quarter of the minority party in Congress — senators like Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who coauthored, with liberal Democrat George McGovern of South Dakota, the main legislative vehicle to pull the United States out of Vietnam.

Although Nixon’s presidency ended prematurely in his second term under threat of bipartisan impeachment, he enjoyed a long period of productive domestic policymaking, with Democrats joining him and his party for legislative programs like revenue sharing and education reform. Sometimes Nixon was able to work with liberals, but more often he forged a centrist "conservative coalition" that included Southern Democrats joining most of his congressional Republicans.

Both Congress and the rest of the U.S. political system were already undergoing a sea change back then, with a realignment underway that turned the solid Democratic South into a more reliably Republican region and the strongly Republican New England and West Coast into Democratic strongholds. With those changes, the strong contingents of Boll Weevils and Gypsy Moths all but disappeared. Over time, the Democratic Party became more homogeneous and moved left, and the Republican Party became much more homogeneous and moved right. By the late 2000s, the center in Congress had virtually disappeared.

At the same time, two other phenomena emerged. The first was the permanent campaign, a change from an era where there were distinct seasons of campaigning and governing — the former a vicious, zero-sum contest in which partisans were bitter enemies, the latter a conciliatory process of coalition-building among allies and adversaries alike. The second, precipitated by the stunning Gingrich-led Republican congressional victories of 1994, led to an extended era of close partisan margins, which gave rise to high-stakes legislative politics and sharply reduced incentives for lawmakers to work across party lines to solve problems.

If you doubt that politics in Congress has become more partisan, consider this: For the first time ever, in the 111th Congress that convened during the first two years of the Obama presidency, the National Journal‘s vote ratings showed that the most conservative Democratic senator was to the left of the most liberal Republican. There is now no overlap ideologically at all between the parties. Only nine of the remaining small number of conservative House Democrats (now called "Blue Dogs") were to the right of the most liberal House Republican. That Republican, Mike Castle of Delaware, was dumped by his party in a primary as he ran for the Senate and is now out of Congress, as are the bulk of the Blue Dogs.

That brings us to the 112th Congress. House Republicans are adamant about refusing to compromise with the president, and are able in most instances to make good on the threat. When they are not able to maintain this unity, they are simply unwilling to bring up or pass measures that would lose significant GOP votes and require as many or more Democrats in support. This is a formula for gridlock, or worse. is the Republicans are simply declining to govern.

We have seen problems emerge on more issues than the fiscal issues now before Congress. For instance, the painful effort to find broad bipartisan support for three significant trade agreements that are clearly in America’s national interest, including its economic and diplomatic interest (and which first had to overcome substantial Democratic opposition), have been thwarted of late by Republicans’ refusal to negotiate with the president over a much more minor issue of implementing trade adjustment assistance.

Political tactics to provoke confrontation, during a time when the permanent campaign reigns supreme and the competition for majorities in both houses is fierce, have combined with the rise of partisan media, one with far more reach and immediacy than the partisan press that thrived in the 19th century. When a phalanx of conservative media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to talk radio and blogs, chimes in that breaching America’s debt limit would at worst be benign and at best could actually do the country some good, and are joined by presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty in those messages, it encourages the confrontationalists to ignore the reality that damaging the full faith and credit of the United States will cause long-lasting economic turmoil at home and abroad.

Partisan and ideological conflict is inherent in democratic political systems, of course, and governing is often a messy process. But this level of dysfunction is not typical. And it is not going away in the near future. The 2012 elections are sure to bring very close margins in both houses of Congress, and even more ideological polarization; the redistricting process now underway in the House is targeting some of the last few Blue Dog Democrats in places like North Carolina and enhancing the role of primary elections on the Republican side, which will pull candidates and representatives even further to the right.

The Framers saw deliberation, institutional loyalty, and compromise as the only way to produce sensible and legitimate policy decisions in an extended republic. Many Republicans, especially former office holders, understand this. Many of the party’s current members surely would prefer to solve problems, if the culture and atmosphere — and the primary process that gives inordinate power to both parties’ ideological bases — did not make it so hard to do so. But there is little chance that a suitable climate for compromise and bipartisanship will take hold anytime soon — meaning that we can look forward to more headaches ahead at home and abroad.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a weekly columnist at Roll Call, and co-author, with Thomas Mann of It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.