While Congress has always been relatively unpopular among the American public, there has recently continued to be widespread expression that the first session of the 112th Congress is one of the worst Congresses in American history. It may be easy and tempting to romanticize the political past while demonizing the present, but my paper attempted to explore whether this discontent was unfounded and my research has shown that is is not – rather, the first session of the 112th Congress does differ from its historical predecessors, specifically other periods of divided government, in significant ways.
One measure I used to compare the first session of the 112th Congress to its predecessors was legislative productivity. I drew primarily upon Sarah Binder’s analysis in Stalemate, and attempted to replicate her methodology, applying it to the 112th Congress to analyze the incidence of legislative gridlock. To replicate Binder’s methodology, I read all daily New York Times editorials that were published during the first session of the 112th Congress, specifically from 1/5/11 to 1/3/12. I coded them in the same way that Binder did to assess the size of the first session of the 112th Congress’s legislative agenda and then used similar methods as Binder to explore whether issues on the agenda were or were not successfully addressed. My findings show that in comparison to other periods of divided government in recent memory, the first session of the 112th Congress does rank as one of the lowest in legislative productivity. Additionally, I also looked at other measures that convey changes in the institutional character of Congress. For instance, this past Congress has one of the shortest schedules for its session, one possible indication of decline in Congress’s practice of thoughtful deliberation as a legislative body.
However, in the process of writing my paper, I’ve realized that quantitative measures are not enough to explain the nature of the first session of the 112th Congress. It’s important to build upon this mode of analysis to reveal a much more complex story. For instance, under Binder’s methodology – the first session of the 112th Congress was able to successfully act upon the most salient issue of its legislative agenda: extending the payroll tax cut. Yet, it’s important to note that they only passed an extension eight days before the scheduled expiration of the payroll tax cut and that the extension they passed was only temporary – postponing any resolution to the issue until February 2012. At the same time, the likelihood that an extension would pass in February seemed low but the 112th Congress seemed to exceed expectations when the Senate and the House both voted in favor of extending the payroll tax cut until the end of 2012, successfully reaching a longer-term agreement on the issue.
But in the end, my paper does reveal that the 112th Congress differs from its historical predecessors in significant ways and that may not be an exaggeration to call it “the worst Congress ever”. The remainder of the 112th Congress might complicate this conclusion and I’m interested to see how it plays out. As of now, I’m currently working on expanding my paper to include some ideas about how we can reverse Congress’s negative trajectory. I welcome any suggestions or thoughts!