The 112th Congress faces the voters next month with a historic distinction: Its 13 percent approval rating is the lowest this close to an election since Gallup started asking people.
This unpopularity is earned. The tea party Congress elected in 2010 simply can’t get anything done. It has enacted just 173 laws, about half the production of a typical Congress, and less than half the laws passed by the Congress that served from 2009-2010.
Its members haven’t passed a budget. They crashed into the debt ceiling and broke the nation’s credit rating. They failed to enact either President Barack Obama’s jobs proposals or any proposals of their own. They failed to do anything about expiring tax cuts or the doomsday deficit-reduction bomb set to go off Jan. 1. Their failures to make decisions have created uncertainty that is an additional drag on the recovery. You could call them acts of economic sabotage, and Obama should.
Will any incumbents be punished by voters for this abysmal performance? More important: Will the 112th Congress do any better when it returns after the election for a lame-duck session? And will the 113th Congress be any less paralyzed when it opens in January?
I put those questions to several old-time House members exasperated by their inability to make deals with their Republican colleagues in the 112th, and to two newcomers eager to get into the 113th.
Unlike in the corporate world, “there’s no win-win in politics,” Sean Bielat said. Both parties act like they can’t win unless the other side loses.
Bielat, making his second run for the House in the redesigned 4th District, is the kind of Republican that Democrats might be able to work with. A Marine now serving in the Reserves, he opposed the Iraq war, wants Congress to reassert its authority to declare war and wants civilians, not “generals on the ground” to make critical national security decisions.
Bielat is a critic of wasteful Pentagon spending, a Keynesian who supports short-term stimulus and long-term deficit-reduction. His inclinations are solidly conservative, but he has refused to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, or any other pledges that would limit his ability to find common ground on Capitol Hill.
Joe Kennedy III, the Democrat running against Bielat, said the problem in Washington is the game of stalling decisions until an election gives one side the chance to roll over the other.
“One party won’t vanquish the other,” Kennedy said, pledging to emulate Sen. Ted Kennedy, his great-uncle, who showed how a leader could reach across the aisle without violating his principles.
But Ted Kennedy came of age in a different Washington, one where Democrats and Republicans stayed in town on weekends, shared drinks after hours and got to know each other’s families.
Page 2 of 3 - That doesn’t happen as much any more. Newt Gingrich started telling Republican House members in the ‘90s not to move their families to Washington. Instead, they work shorter weeks and spend more time in the district raising money.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, saw the change, first as a Congressional spouse, now as a House member. She just made cupcakes for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican she got to know on one of her trips to Afghanistan. Bipartisanship is still possible, she said, but it’s more difficult.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, learned how to forge bipartisan deals from his mentor, Rep. Joe Moakley. But the problem isn’t just the culture of the place, he told me this week. It’s the ideology of its newest members.
“The tea party doesn’t believe in the public sector,” McGovern said. There was always bipartisanship on things like transportation and farm policy. Everyone wanted government help building roads and bridges in their districts, taking care of the farmers and the farm food consumers in their districts.
But it’s hard to trade favors with someone who doesn’t think the government should do anything for anybody, even for their own constituents.
There are still “pragmatic Republicans,” Rep. Ed Markey said, but they are more dependent than ever on funding from special interests, and they are afraid of a primary challenge from the right, financed by some special interest they’ve offended.
Markey, who has been involved in energy policy since he first came to Congress in 1976, said that legislation has traditionally been passed by spreading the goodies around. The Texans got oil subsidies, Kentucky got coal concessions, the Northeast got home heating oil assistance for low-income families.
Now the oil and coal interests, and their champions in Congress, are not so accommodating. They are determined to let the subsidy for wind power investment expire at the end of the year, while holding on to subsidies for fossil fuels.
“The pragmatic Republicans have been isolated,” Markey said. “There’s no one to cut a deal with.”
Will that dynamic change without one party vanquishing the other in November? The only hope may be that some of the uncompromising tea partiers get spanked by the voters, allowing the pragmatists to feel a little safer.
The voters have interceded before, punishing Republicans for shutting down the government over a budget impasse in 1996 and for devoting the better part of 1998 to impeaching Bill Clinton.
If the voters don’t send a strong enough message and Congress allows the country to fall off the fiscal cliff, the next Congress may prove even less popular than this one.
Page 3 of 3 - Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.