When Congress Was Even Worse Than It Is Today

The dysfunction of America’s gridlocked legislature is bad for the country—but when lawmakers pass catastrophically bad bills, it’s even worse.

Jason Reed / Reuters

While Congress is deeply flawed for many of the reasons that Norm Ornstein flags in his most recent lament on the body, where partisanship, ideological polarization, the breakdown of salubrious institutional norms, and a decline in substantive debate have all contributed to years of alarming dysfunction, I have to dissent from his assessment that the 114th Congress, the one now in session, may be “the worst ever,” even granting its inability to pass a budget, its failure to fill judicial vacancies, its inaction on the Zika epidemic, and its failed approach to drug policy.

I dissent for the same reason that I cited when Ornstein declared the 112th Congress among the worst ever because of the GOP’s political brinksmanship; while legislators ill-serve their country when they cynically let their political posturing undermine good governance, failing to compromise even when doing so would improve on the status-quo, a gridlocked, “do-nothing” Congress, as suboptimal as it is, is nevertheless preferable to a “do-something-awful” Congress.

To find a Congress unambiguously worse than the ones that Ornstein dubs the very worst, we only need to go back a little more than a decade, to the 107th Congress, when legislators joined in lots of bipartisan cooperation that proved catastrophic.

That Congress served from January 3, 2001 to January 3, 2003.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, its members passed an Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, with just one dissenting vote, Representative Barbara Lee. She presciently warned that the AUMF’s overbroad language would allow the president to wage war almost anywhere on earth with insufficient limits or oversight.

That same Congress voted overwhelmingly for the Patriot Act, with all its infringements on civil liberties, including language that the NSA would later exploit when conducting warrantless spying on the phone calls of nearly all Americans.

Later still, that Congress passed a bipartisan authorization to use force against Iraq, giving its imprimatur to a catastrophic war of choice that squandered $6 trillion, killed roughly 5,000 Americans, and led directly to sectarian violence in Iraq, the empowerment of Iran, and a power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS and its atrocities.

Ornstein’s critiques of Congressional dysfunction are valuable. The country would be better governed if more legislators felt shamed by his reprimands. But it is important for observers of Congress to stay cognizant of flaws beyond the sorts that Ornstein emphasizes, flaws that have produced superlatively bad outcomes in recent memory. Congress does harm when its members are unwilling to govern together, but has done far worse harm when cooperatively passing flawed yet popular legislation.

The latter failures are ignored at America’s peril, and help explain why many voters are content with higher degrees of gridlock in Congress than most centrist insiders: Sensing a failure to grapple with bipartisan “sins of commission,” they believe, erroneously but understandably, that a “do-nothing” Congress is the best safeguard against a “do-something-awful” Congress. To change their minds will require grappling with failures of action, not just failures to act, and articulating why the new dysfunction in Congress is the wrong answer to establishment failures.

Many voters feel they are not being offered any better answer. And I must say that the prospect of Hillary Clinton urging more dumb wars of choice, or Donald Trump transgressing against civil liberties aplenty, only redoubles my belief that there are worse scenarios than an obstinate legislature determined to say no whenever possible.