The 'worst Congress ever'? 8 low points of 2011
Back in July, longtime Washington watcher Norm Ornstein pegged the 112th Congress as the "worst Congress ever," and it hasn't improved much since. By October, a CBS/New York Times poll clocked the legislative branch's popularity at an abysmal 9 percent, making it less popular (according to various polls) than the idea of the U.S. turning Communist (11 percent), BP during its massive 2010 Gulf oil spill (16 percent), banks (23 percent), King George during the Revolutionary War (an estimated 15 to 20 percent), and even the IRS (40 percent). Why is the tax man four times more popular than Washington lawmakers? Here, eight reminders of why you hated Congress in 2011:
1. The GOP reads the Constitution on the House floor
After taking control of the House in the 2010 landslide election, the Republicans welcomed in the new order with a nod to the Tea Party, reading the entire Constitution on the House floor. A bipartisan group of 135 House members read the text, minus parts nullified by later amendments. This pointless, "tedious exercise" took 90 minutes, and cost taxpayers nearly $1.1 million in salaries and expenses, said Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair.
2. Congress narrowly averts a government shutdown
Congress very nearly brought the federal government to a grinding halt in April, in what would have been the first government shutdown in 15 years. But at the 11th hour, both parties gave ground in a deal that, on paper, cut $38.5 billion in spending, and didn't include GOP-pushed cuts to Planned Parenthood and NPR. But when the Congressional Budget Office scored the deal, all that wrangling only cut the deficit by $352 million. This cynical deal was "shot through with gimmicks and one-time savings," said National Review in an editorial. We call "strike one against the speakership of John Boehner."
3. Democrats demagogue the GOP's Medicare-voucherizing plan
As Democrats and Republicans careened toward a government shutdown, House GOP budget maven Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) released an ambitious plan to cut $4 trillion from the budget over 10 years. Democrats quickly pointed out that $1 trillion of that would come from turning Medicare into an inadequate voucher system. One liberal group, the Agenda Project, even produced a "disturbing" ad with a Ryan lookalike literally pushing a wheelchair-bound grandma over a cliff. "Every time you think the Democrats can't possibly sink any lower, they do," says John Hinderaker at PowerLine.
4. The House GOP nixes disaster relief funds
In May, the town of Joplin, Mo., was wiped off the map by a "murderous tornado." Breaking a long bipartisan tradition, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he wouldn't approve any disaster-relief funds unless Democrats agreed to equal cuts elsewhere in the budget. Cantor demanded the same offsets when a freak earthquake hit his own Virginia district in August, and a huge tornado threatened New York City. At least Cantor's consistent, said Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway, but "nickel-and-dime accounting in the midst of a disaster makes you look like a bit of a jerk."
5. Congress invites a U.S. credit downgrade
After months of fruitless, high-level budget talks between the House, Senate, and White House, all parties finally agreed early Aug. 1 to a budget-slashing deal, mere hours before a first-ever U.S. credit default. The deal — which cut $1 trillion over 10 years and created a bipartisan "super committee" charged with cutting another $1.2 trillion — averted the default, but not a first-ever credit downgrade to America's perfect AAA rating. "Ultimately, S&P didn't only downgrade the U.S. credit rating," said Jonathan Allen at Politico. "It downgraded the whole political system."
6. The House reaffirms our national motto
Amid all the gridlock and inaction, the House found time on Nov. 2 to reaffirm "In God we trust" as our national motto. House Republicans said the affirmation was necessary because President Obama once cited "E Pluribus Unum" (Latin for "out of many, one"), which "In God we trust" replaced in 1956. All but eight Democrats refused to step into this time-wasting "culture-war trap," said Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune. But "given that there's no movement afoot to alter the motto, is it an act of piety or a blasphemy to use the name of God for a cheap political stunt?"
7. Congress declares pizza a vegetable
On Nov. 16, Congress shot down new Obama administration guidelines to make school lunches healthier, including a special status for the tomato paste used in school lunch pizzas. "Congress says pizza is a vegetable," tweeted Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "Is The Onion now writing legislation?" The new rules would also have limited the widespread use of french fries and other foods that add to childhood obesity, said The Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial. Those foods are also profitable to deep-pocketed food companies, so Congress' shameful decision "had more do with adults and big business than the best interest of children."
8. The super committee fails spectacularly
In late November, the super committee threw up its hands and admitted defeat. The "epic fail" means that, unless Congress goes back on its August deal, $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts will kick in in 2013. Roughly half of the cuts will come from the defense budget. "The saddest part of this sad moment in American democracy" is that if a super committee with special budgetary powers can't reach agreement in favorable conditions, we're in for years more of paralyzing gridlock, says Michael Scherer at TIME. Nothing will change in the next election, no matter which party wins. "And that is why the future looks so grim.