The Present Congress Isn't the Worst Ever, or Even Lately

Take the 107th Congress, which passed the PATRIOT Act, approved the Iraq War, and created the Department of Homeland Security.

107th congress full.jpg

After calculating the odds of divided government come 2013, Gregory Koger seems it more likely than not, and laments. "The 112th Congress has been abysmal. The Worst. Congress. Ever." he writes. "During a time when the U.S. has faced immense challenges, the Congress has been essentially paralyzed on major policy problems. Someone ought to pay a retrospective price for the failure."

He isn't alone. Norman Ornstein called its predecessor the worst ever.

"Yes, the 111th Congress, during the first two years of the Obama presidency, produced an impressive spate of major legislative accomplishments, from a stimulus package to a sweeping health-care reform bill to major financial regulatory reform," he wrote. "But all were passed after contentious, drawn-out, partisan battles that left most Americans less than happy with the outcomes."

Isn't that an unusual? He agrees with all the major legislation and still thinks they're the worst!

These "worst ever" arguments that gloss over decades of pre-modern history are always silly. But one needn't even crack open the history books to find a Congress worse than the one we've got now. And guess what? That recent Congress was a relative model of fast action and unity.

How did that work out? You be the judge.

The 107th Congress met for two years starting January 3, 2001. The Senate was evenly split until Jim Jeffords left the GOP, declared himself an independent, and began to caucus with Democrats.

In October 2001, with just one senator dissenting, that Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, the most alarming infringement on civil liberties in a generation and a precursor to all War on Terrorism abuses to come. In a bipartisan bill that January, legislators approved No Child Left Behind, a well-intentioned but flawed education-reform bill that forced an ineffective test-taking regime on the states and has not lived up to its name. Another bipartisan bill, the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation, didn't remedy the problems it was meant to address before or after parts of it were found by the Supreme Court to violate the Constitution.

But no failure was as consequential as the 2002 authorization for military force against Iraq. What a historic debacle. That same Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, so their legacy of awfulness may well continue in perpetuity. It's all worth remembering next time someone tells you that the present Congress is the worst ever because they won't get anything done. For a couple years after President Bush took over, Congress agreed enough to push through all sorts of major policies with bipartisan support. They just turned out to be follies.

Sometimes bipartisan agreement is far more catastrophic than gridlock.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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