By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
Special To The Washington Post
When we set out to write a book about the growing extremism in American politics about 18 months ago, we thought that the 112th Congress was the worst we had seen in our four decades in Washington. However, the fight over the debt limit, the fiscal cliff and the farm bill — and the shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration — convinced us it has been the worst Congress ever. Despite its dysfunction, there are also widespread misconceptions about the 112th Congress and what lies ahead. Let’s correct a few of them.
1. The 112th Congress was as bad as the 80th “do-nothing” Congress during the Truman era.
The comparison is completely unfair — to the 80th Congress. Harry Truman’s improbable comeback to win the 1948 presidential election was fueled by his relentless campaign against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress of 1947-48. That Congress had many parallels with the 112th — it pitted a hostile, conservative Republican House against an activist, liberal president.
But the 80th Congress was unfairly stuck with the “do nothing” label. It enacted a respectable 906 laws, including the Marshall Plan, one of the most consequential initiatives of the 20th century. It created the Defense Department and the National Security Council as part of a sweeping reorganization of our national security apparatus.
In contrast, the 112th Congress enacted the smallest number of laws in modern history, fewer than 250 (some are still awaiting presidential action). At least 40 of those were trivial acts such as post office namings or commemorative resolutions. What was the 112th’s equivalent of the Marshall Plan? The debt-limit debacle, which led to the first-ever downgrade of the nation’s credit rating.
2. President Barack Obama wasn’t adept at working with Congress.
Robert Caro’s latest volume about Lyndon Johnson prompted much talk about the good old days when presidents plied members of Congress with food and drink, and twisted arms to achieve national goals. And Bob Woodward’s latest bestseller found Obama lacking in his high-stakes negotiations in 2011 to reach a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner on the debt ceiling. Throughout and after the fiscal cliff negotiations, commentators bemoaned a lack of presidential leadership in speaking honestly to the public about our fiscal imbalance and presenting a plan for controlling entitlements and raising revenue. This is nonsense.