Congress has its most disappointing year ever

From the spring's budget deal to the failure of the "supercommittee," 2011 was the year that Congress just can't get things done, despite the nation's economic struggles and growing collective anxiety. No wonder the legislative branch is so unpopular.

William B. Plowman/AP/NBC News/File
In this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, photo provided by NBC News, Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, appears on NBC's "Meet the Press" in Washington. House Republicans said Sunday they oppose a bipartisan, Senate-approved bill that extends a payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for just two months and said congressional bargainers need to write a new version lasting a longer time. Lim Rogers argues that Congress' inablility to solve such matters are a major cause of its deep unpopularity.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza stated the obvious in Sunday’s Washington Post:  “Congress is unpopular.”  And deservedly so, because as Chris explains (in print but also in a nice video on that web page):

Saying that Congress is unpopular is kind of like saying that water is wet or that big-time college football is corrupt. It’s so obvious as to be assumed. And yet, in 2011 Congress managed to underperform even the low regard in which the American people hold it.

It wasn’t just that lawmakers didn’t do much in 2011. It was that they didn’t do much in a year in which the economy continued to struggle, the nation’s collective anxiety soared and, for the first time in modern memory, our fiscal foundations seemed genuinely shaky.

The mismatch between the bigness of the country’s problems and the smallness of Congress drove the institution’s approval ratings down to used-car-dealer (or even journalist) levels.

Chris goes on to boil down the major failures of Congress this year to three areas:  (1) the budget “deal” in the spring; (2) the debt-ceiling “debate” in the summer; and (3) the (not so) “supercommittee” in the fall.  From my perspective, in all three cases: (1) the Obama Administration led by talking about the need for a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction that would involve both revenue increases and spending cuts (their “opening bid” effectively representing the compromise position they hoped to ultimately reach); (2) Republican leaders took a hard line position (pretty much “bullying”) on their Grover-mandated “no new taxes” stance; and (3) the Democrats in Congress and the Administration then cried “no fair, you mean bullies!”–but ultimately caved in and agreed to spending cuts only.

And now it’s gotten so bad that the two sides can’t even agree on passing a deficit-financed tax cut, the only kind of policy that we’ve seen them have no trouble agreeing on over the past, um, decade or so.  House Speaker John Boehner explains that the Senate-passed two-month (only) extension of the payroll tax cut does not provide Americans with the kind of “certainty” they need.  He’s right that the temporary extension is just another installment of kicking the can down the road, but Americans are very used to that kicking of the can.  I think Americans are more freaked out about the potential that Congress won’t even manage to kick the can–that they’ll miss it all together while they bicker for bickering sake–and we’ll all end up flat on our assets (and the body part that sounds like that).

(Hence, the Charlie Brown cartoon; just substitute “football” for “can.”)

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