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As the new year began, the newspaper Newsday ran an editorial headed “Congress Made This Mess” with a subhead declaring that the “fiscal cliff” is a “metaphor for failure.” It was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the dropping of a ball—labeled “dysfunction—alongside the Capitol Dome.
“So the new year may start off much like the old ended, with an epic failure to govern,” opined Newsday.
No matter what may happen about the “fiscal cliff,” the U.S. Congress is now widely seen as deeply dysfunctional.
This past summer, Gallup reported that its polling showed only one-in-10 Americans “approve the job Congress is doing.” This tied, it noted, with the “all-time low” of 10 percent approval in a Gallup poll the year before “as the lowest in Gallup’s 38 year history of this measure. Eight-three percent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.”
Much of this has to do with the public perception—an accurate one—that most members of Congress are bought and paid for notably via campaign contributions by special interests.
Indeed, making the rounds of the Internet in recent years has been the posting: “Members of Congress should be compelled to wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers, so we could identify their sponsors.”
And then there’s this repeated posting:
“Now I understand! The English language has some wonderfully anthropomorphic collective nouns for various groups of animals. We are all familiar with a Herd of cows, a Flock of chickens, a Schoolof fish and a Gaggleof geese. However, less widely known is a Pride of lions, a Murder of crows…an Exaltation of doves and, presumably because they look so wise, a Parliament of owls. Now consider a group of baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not….a Congress!. I guess that pretty much explains the things that come out of Washington! Look it up. A group of baboons is a congress.”
A very low opinion of the U.S. Congress is not new in America.
Over a century ago, Mark Twain wrote: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Twain also said that “there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”
Decades later, Will Rogers said: “The country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” Milton Berle, yet later, said: “You can lead a man to Congress, but you can’t make him think.”
But now confidence in and respect for Congress has reached a nadir.
And the perception matches reality. For example, the 112th Congress, which ended this week, “is set to go down in American history as the most unproductive session since the 1940s,” wrote Amanda Terkel last week on The Huffington Post. It passed slightly more than 200 bills that became law. This is “far less than the 80th Congress (1947-1948) which President Harry Truman infamously dubbed the “Do-Nothing Congress” which passed 900 bills that became law.”
Part of the problem is what has been termed “congressional stagnation”—a theory holding that the U.S. Congress has become stagnant as a result of the continuous re-election of nearly all of its incumbents.
Indeed, notes the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington: “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats.”
Also, making members of Congress ever more the instruments of special interests with money is the ever-skyrocketing cost of campaigns—mainly for political TV commercials.
The Center for Responsive Politics notes that the 2012 election campaign was the “most expensive election in U.S. history”—costing $6 billion. Much of that, more than $2 billion, involved the presidential race. “House and Senate candidates combined will spend about $1.82 billion.” And “congressional races are being affected by the huge increase in outside spending.”
“In the new campaign finance landscape post-Citizens United, we’re seeing historic spending levels spurred by outside groups dominated by a small number of individuals and organizations making exceptional contributions,” said Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
As Alex Gibney, maker of the documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” has said, we have “a system of legalized bribery in Washington.”
This reflects directly on the low, low level of Congress doing anything—and, when it does, mainly serving special interests.
Change—major change—is desperately needed!
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.