Congress nears a desultory end

As the 112th Congress approaches its end and lawmakers come and go from elected office, furniture from Congressional workrooms is shuffled in the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington Wednesday evening.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
As the 112th Congress approaches its end and lawmakers come and go from elected office, furniture from Congressional workrooms is shuffled in the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington Wednesday evening.

WASHINGTON — As the current crop of US representatives and senators lurches toward the end of 2012, the Congress of the last two years is on track to notch a record as the most unpopular and one of the least productive in at least 40 years.

On the heels of a contentious election and while Americans pine in vain for a sense of unified purpose, Congress is poised to cap off its dubious distinction by taking the nation to the brink of yet another economic crisis — the fiscal cliff — once again employing the sort of O.K. Corral tactics that have raised so much public ire in the first place.

Although the current standoff features both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Congress appears to be getting most of the blame for the failure to make progress in negotiations on the looming batch of expiring tax cuts and automatic spending reductions likely to drag the economy into another recession if not modified or reversed.


Congressional approval dipped to 10 percent twice this year, part of Capitol Hill’s worst string of ratings since Gallup began measuring its standing with the public in 1974.

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The fiscal cliff is entirely a Washington creation, the result of repeated failures to resolve budget and tax differences over the last two years. Obama is certainly part of the equation, and he joined Congress in 2011 in setting the conditions for it. But Congress is getting most of the blame, polls indicate.

SOURCE: Gallup

The stalemate freezes action on such major initiatives as a renewal of the farm bill, a defense authorization, an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed, and a rescue of the Postal Service.

“The 112th Congress — at least as judged by the American people and as judged by overall work product — has been one of the least productive Congresses certainly in recent history,’’ Representative Chris Van Hollen, a leading Democratic House member from Maryland, said Wednesday.

“Most of the energy was consumed on budget issues,’’ he added, “and the reason we’re here today, on the edge of the fiscal cliff, is that this Congress, at least so far, has not resolved those big issues.’’


Van Hollen blames Republicans for refusing to accept higher tax rates for the wealthy and, until very recently, refusing to budge on any increased government revenues. Conservatives counter that the Democrats are to blame for a gridlocked Congress — having stymied numerous Republican House initiatives and refused to give ground on spending cuts.

“The last page hasn’t been written, but by and large [Congress] failed to address the major issues facing our country,’’ said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “The president had a lot of responsibility for that.’’

So even the debate over the legacy of the 112th Congress is, well, another partisan dispute.

“The amount of fighting and partisanship is high. People see that back home and they just sort of throw up their hands,’’ said Dani Doane, director of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

A major root of the current dysfunction was the 2010 midterm election, when voters sent a Republican majority to the House and kept Democrats in charge of the Senate.


For most of the last century, one party or the other has been in charge of Capitol Hill. The most prolonged exception was during the first six years of President Reagan’s two terms in office, when the Republicans led the Senate and Democrats — led by Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts — held the House. Bipartisan cooperation was more typical in that era, and one often-cited accomplishment was a landmark 1986 tax-code overhaul engineered by Reagan and O’Neill.

Partisan divides have intensified since, peaking after Obama’s election and the subsequent midterm elections that ushered a wave of conservative Tea Party Republicans to Capitol Hill. The new conservatives not only ran against Obama’s health care package and the fiscal stimulus program, but were also rebelling against what they saw as the fiscal profligacy of former president George W. Bush.

House Republicans have used every tactic at their disposal to make the deficit the highest national priority, pioneering the use of economic brinksmanship in the 2011 debt-ceiling fight when they nearly drove the nation to default. The resolution of that crisis was to delay hard decisions until now.

Obama and Senate Democrats think they have the upper hand in talks and are calling the Republicans’ bluff, setting economic leaders on edge.

The high-stakes battles with such a potentially big impact on the nation’s economy are something new and appear to alienate Americans who want compromise, said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank.

“This idea of brinksmanship is the story that will get told about this Congress,’’ she said. “There has not been this effort before to take do-or-die bills hostage. Aggressively taking bills hostage and threatening default is a novel technique, and that does not bode well for approval ratings.’’

House Republicans have received much of the blame for the the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, as well as not compromising on taxes and for blocking safety-net spending programs Obama pushed to spark the economy.

Conservatives point to a slew of House-approved initiatives that were blocked by Democrats, including a repeal of Obama’s landmark health-care insurance expansion and the conservative budgets produced by Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the 2012 vice-presidential nominee. House Republicans also passed rollbacks on workplace and environmental regulations. It all died in the Senate.

But Democrats have the White House, and that helps them drive the narrative. With Obama’s relentless focus on raising tax rates on people in the top two income-tax brackets, said Doane, of the Heritage Foundation, the president is pursuing an agenda that has a big political impact but not a major impact on the deficit.

The “adherence to these top two rates makes it seem that it is more about the politics of the situation,’’ she said. “You have so much political atmosphere going on, that creates a much more strategic, tactical battle than it does a policy battle.’’

To end the showdown, Doane said, both sides will have to “hold hands and jump together’’ to embrace policies that are unpopular with their constituencies — revenue increases for the GOP, entitlement changes for the Democrats.

If they don’t work it out by Jan. 1, America will be taking a leap of another kind.

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@