Super Bad

With the debt ceiling impasse and legislative gridlock sucking all the air out of Washington, Foreign Policy asked the experts: Is this really the worst Congress ever?


With less than a week to go to resolve the debt ceiling crisis -- and the government in serious danger of facing a catastrophic default -- it doesn't take a political genius to realize Washington is in a bit of a mess right now. And Norman Ornstein (who might well be a political genius) didn't pull any punches in Foreign Policy last week in writing that the current Congress is more dysfunctional than at any time in the 42 years he has been watching Washington: It is subsumed in "contentious, drawn-out, partisan battles" that make the Watergate era look like halcyon days. His piece certainly got people talking. But is he right? In search of answers, FP asked a few more experts to weigh in.

Beverly Gage: Trust me, this Congress is historically inept. Scott Lilly: Blame Congress, the GOP, and society itself. Sarah Binder: Yes, it's really that bad.  

Trust me, this Congress is historically inept. 

With less than a week to go to resolve the debt ceiling crisis — and the government in serious danger of facing a catastrophic default — it doesn’t take a political genius to realize Washington is in a bit of a mess right now. And Norman Ornstein (who might well be a political genius) didn’t pull any punches in Foreign Policy last week in writing that the current Congress is more dysfunctional than at any time in the 42 years he has been watching Washington: It is subsumed in "contentious, drawn-out, partisan battles" that make the Watergate era look like halcyon days. His piece certainly got people talking. But is he right? In search of answers, FP asked a few more experts to weigh in.


Trust me, this Congress is historically inept. 

Pundits often claim that we live in a uniquely partisan age. I’ve long been a skeptic on this front: What about, say, the Civil War? Or the spoils-system stalemates of the late 19th century? Or Republican attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a secret fascist dictator?

The debt ceiling debate is making me more of a believer. On the Republican side, the combination of ideological vanguardism and scorched-earth electoral policy suggests that party leaders are altogether "declining to govern," as Norman Ornstein suggested. The White House, in turn, seems thoroughly unable to force Republicans to accept exactly what they said they wanted in the first place. Things do not look good — and I say this as a professional historian. But is congressional partisanship and deadlock really worse than ever?

One hint that the answer might be yes: I’ve been reading a lot about Watergate lately. Somewhere into my third or fourth book, I found myself wishing that Congress could get along as well today as it did in the 1970s. Yes, let me repeat that: From a 21st-century perspective, Watergate seems like a moment of bipartisan cooperation and functional government. Despite fierce political differences, congressional leaders in both parties eventually concluded that the nation’s greater good — constitutional, legal, and spiritual — would be served by Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. Some Republicans cried and gnashed their teeth. But they rose to the moment anyway.

Of course, bipartisanship in itself is no pure virtue. Sometimes one side is right, one side is wrong, and compromise itself is an abdication of political responsibility. Unfortunately, there is no reason to assume that Congress will accurately assess what’s needed.

Take what happened after World War I, perhaps our best example of how vicious partisan battles can help to produce long-term crisis. At the time, President Woodrow Wilson was pushing for a League of Nations, the world’s first major deliberative body designed to negotiate international conflicts. The League was flawed, weak, and problematic — no perfect creature, to be sure. Congressional Republicans seized upon these failings not to constructively engage the problem of global governance, but to strike back at Wilson and insist on fealty to an isolationist foreign policy. The result was a missed opportunity of colossal proportions — an utter failure to live up to the challenge of governing in a complex world.

There’s little reason to believe that the League of Nations would have prevented World War II, just as simply raising the debt ceiling won’t solve long-term fiscal problems. But solving such problems requires a genuine willingness to govern and an ability to see beyond the next election. 

There’s little evidence of either of those qualities at work in the debt ceiling debate. Congress and the White House have until Aug. 2 to show us otherwise.

Beverly Gage teaches U.S. history at Yale University.

Blame Congress, the GOP, and society itself.

There have been some pretty bad Congresses over the course of American history, and I don’t know enough about all of them to judge whether some might be worse than this one — but I can say without hesitation that this is the worst Congress I’ve seen in my lifetime. 

Some of the problems are functional: The Senate, for example, insists on maintaining rules that in the current era of political confrontation make it incompetent as a legislative body. But far worse is the House of Representatives, which is controlled by a political party that New York Times columnist David Brooks says, "May no longer be a normal party." According to Brooks, it "has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative." 

Compounding the problem with the current majority in the House is the detached disdain with which issues of governance are regarded by much of the populace. The common refrain of "what are those clowns in Washington going to do next" seems to absolve the rest of society for having elected such individuals. But the simple truth is that the problems in Washington were not created in the nation’s capital — they were created by electing people who represent two very different and incompatible governing philosophies.

One philosophy seeks to continue government programs in roughly the same manner they now exist with whatever combination of spending reductions and tax increases that may be necessary to close the budget deficit; the other aims to radically shrink the size and scope of government (with massive cuts to social programs like Medicare and Medicaid) so that taxes can be cut below current levels. In short, we have a dysfunctional government because we have a dysfunctional society — a society that expects all the best without recognizing that each generation must pay its dues and that no society will move forward if parochial concerns repeatedly trump a broad-based commitment to the common good.

At the center of this unfortunate mindset is the notion that those things we do to promote the common good are bad by their very nature. Four decades ago, that perspective was alien to both of America’s great political parties. The central reason that we all remember a kinder and gentler political climate in Washington was that in the golden era of the 1940s through the 1970s there was common ground on the idea that using government to accomplish useful objectives was a good thing. The days when the GOP believed that seem long gone.  

The biggest and most successful use of government for social good during the last century was the G.I. Bill of Rights — legislation crafted by Henry Colmery, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and Warren Atherton, a Republican congressman from California.

Dwight Eisenhower passed legislation in 1956 providing $25 billion (more than 5 percent of that year’s GDP) to begin construction of a 41,000-mile interstate highway system. Every Republican in the Senate voted for the program, which passed in the House with a voice vote. 

John F. Kennedy received strong bipartisan support for his proposals to massively increase spending on science and space exportation. 

Or take Richard Nixon’s 1974 health-care proposal, which was more comprehensive than the bill President Barack Obama has been vilified for signing. Nixon in his message to Congress said:

Beyond the question of the prices of health care, our present system of health care insurance suffers from two major flaws:

First, even though more Americans carry health insurance than ever before, the 25 million Americans who remain uninsured often need it the most…

Second, those Americans who do carry health insurance often lack coverage which is balanced, comprehensive, and fully protective.

And Nixon, when compared with some senators of his period such as Richard Schweiker, Chuck Percy, Jacob Javits, Mac Mathias, Charles Goodell, Ed Brooke, and Mark Hatfield (or governors like Nelson Rockefeller, Dan Evans, Francis Sargent, George Romney, and Dick Thornburgh), was not even viewed as a moderate within his own party. 

But people of that ilk have now largely been driven from the GOP, and the few who remain are kept on a very tight leash. As Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, wrote in her book, It’s My Party Too, "The Republican Party at the national level is allowing itself to be dictated to by a coalition of ideological extremists … groups that have claimed the mantle of conservatism and show no inclination to seek bipartisan consensus on anything." 

That is exactly the struggle that Speaker John Boehner now faces in trying to find a way to prevent his country from becoming a global deadbeat, and it is exactly why this government has become dysfunctional. If the American people want to give up their Medicare for private insurance and want to stop Medicaid payments for nursing-home care and those impoverished by accidents or diseases, so be it. But until they make a clear decision, Washington and Congress will continue to be a mess. 

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Yes, it’s really that bad. 

Worst. Congress. Ever? Best. Title. Ever. Unsurprisingly, Norman Ornstein nails the country’s current predicament as succinctly as anyone in or outside Washington can. True, we lack a metric to know exactly whether today’s political dysfunction is the worst ever. But with the country’s rating agencies on the verge of downgrading the nation’s creditworthiness and the Treasury Department just days from breaching the nation’s legal debt ceiling, my Spidey-sense is tingling something’s terribly amiss in Washington.

Ornstein has fingered probably the most important culprit driving today’s dysfunction: the steadily growing polarization of the two legislative parties in Washington. Such polarization — which has been under way at least since the early 1980s — reflects two trends: pronounced policy differences (typically on ideological grounds) and intense partisan disagreement. The political parties in Washington disagree so intensely because they hold different views about the appropriate role of government in managing the economy and because electoral competition gives each party a strategic incentive to disagree with the other party — simply because it is the other party.

Ornstein’s focus on polarization helps shed light on two underappreciated elements of congressional politics.

First, political scientists and pundits often argue that divided party control is essential for getting things done in Washington. In some respects, the argument makes sense. Facing tough choices, both parties use the cover of bipartisanship to reach agreements that are unattainable under unified party control. As David Mayhew has shown us, we certainly have episodes of landmark lawmaking in periods of divided government, for instance tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform a decade later. But the effectiveness of divided government in propelling solutions might be conditional on the state of the parties. Split control when polarization is low yields sustainable policy bargains; split control when polarization is high can put policy agreement out of reach.

That certainly seems to be the case when we look at machinations on Capitol Hill these past few weeks in the run-up to the debt ceiling deadline. Even in the face of a potential downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness, the parties struggle to compromise.

Second, many analysts focus on the stalemate induced by interbranch conflict between Congress and the executive. But studies of legislative performance over the past half-century also suggest that the conflict engendered by intrabranch disagreement also raises the chances for deadlock. We often overlook the impact of bicameral differences on the prospects for solving major public problems. This is true when the parties split control of the chambers, as has been evident in this Congress. But bicameralism also poses a hurdle to legislating when a single party controls both chambers. Just think about the tortuous path of the health-care bill in the last Congress as House and Senate Democrats pursued different approaches to reform.

In sum, Congress’s lawmaking capacity is severely strained under the weight of polarized parties. Still, it is important to keep in mind how the institutional framework of the U.S. political system — including checks and balances within Congress — makes legislating difficult. And as Ornstein as warned, parliamentary parties in a system of separated powers often prove a recipe for gridlock.

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of political science at George Washington University. She is the author of Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock.

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