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October 17th, 2017

Insight

Good riddance to the worst Congress ever

Dana Milbank

By Dana Milbank

Published December 22, 2014

The 113th Congress this week went the way of the dodo — literally.

The lawmakers of the 2013-2014 legislative session finally put themselves out of their misery but not before Harry Reid's Senate passed one final piece of legislation: S. Res. 564, marking "the centennial of the passenger pigeon extinction."

This bipartisan legislation recalled the Sept. 1, 1914, death at the Cincinnati Zoo of Martha, the last of a population of ectopistes migratorius, once 3 billion-strong in North America. It hailed the work of Project Passenger Pigeon, devoted to making sure Martha did not die in vain.

This commemoration of extinction was a perfect end to what was, by just about every measure, the worst Congress ever. According to a tally by the Library of Congress, 296 bills were presented to the president by this Congress — nearly the same as the 284 presented by the previous Congress, the fewest of any Congress since the counts began in the 1940s. (The "do nothing" Congress of 1948 passed about 900.) More than 10 percent of the bills presented were about naming or renaming things and awarding medals.

House Speaker John Boehner said last year that Congress should be judged not by laws passed but by "how many laws we repeal." To calculate that, you add the ones column, the tens and the hundreds, and you get — let's see here — zero.

Here is what Congress did achieve:

The 113th Congress was responsible for the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, preceded and inspired by the "Green Eggs and Ham" filibuster by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). The legislative term also saw the criminal indictment of one House Republican on tax-evasion charges (he was reelected), the resignation of another after a cocaine arrest and the defeat of a third who was caught on film kissing a staffer. Perhaps that's because they had so little work to do: A Politico count found that the Senate was in session 141 days per year on average in this Congress, and the House 147 days.

Lawmakers passed into law not a single one of the 12 annual appropriations bills this year and no budget resolution. The House voted on seven of the spending bills, and the Senate didn't vote on a single one. Instead, they passed a series of continuing resolutions that left government spending on autopilot — further squeezing domestic programs and the military while doing little to curb entitlement programs that threaten the nation's finances.

House Republicans set a record for the number of "closed rules" — those blocking amendments — at 83, compared with a previous record of 61. Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, said this blocked compromise and created "the least productive Congress in history."

In the Senate, meanwhile, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used a legislative maneuver to block amendments more times in his tenure than under the last five majority leaders combined, Republicans point out. Reid also detonated the "nuclear option" during this Congress, stripping decades of tradition that gave the minority the right to filibuster judicial nominations. He was so successful at bottling up legislation passed by the House that President Obama didn't have to issue a single veto.

Congress failed to take meaningful action on immigration, the economy, the tax code and the fight against Islamic State. But the House continued to hold votes to repeal Obamacare (more than 50 since 2011) and it spent $1.5?million to form a new "select committee" on the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks — even though several congressional investigations led by Republicans and Democrats alike have found no scandal in the administration's handling of the incident. House Republicans are also suing Obama over the Affordable Care Act.

The gushing sewer of money into politics — some $4 billion spent on this year's midterm elections, a record — further undermined Americans' trust. Gallup found that Americans' approval of Congress averaged 15 percent in 2014 and a record low 14 percent in 2013. Disdain was shared equally by Republican, Democratic and independent respondents.

It's no coincidence that this worst Congress was also the one that saw the departure of its last three World War II veterans: One died, one retired and one was defeated. Less than 20 percent of lawmakers now are veterans — compared with about 75 percent a generation ago — and fewer are able to grasp that their political opponents are patriotic Americans and not the enemy.

In January, eight years of Democratic control of the Senate come to an end and Republicans will have sole responsibility for Congress. There's little prospect of improvement, but at least Republicans will benefit from low expectations: Americans assume Congress can fly no better than a passenger pigeon.

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Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation's capital.

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