With a new Congress (the 113th) being sworn in yesterday, let’s take a look at three key facts about the last Congress.
1. The 112th Congress was unpopular. According to Gallup, the 112th never had an approval score above 24% and sank down to as low as 10% in February and August of this year. To put that in context, Rasmussen recently found 11% support for replacing the US economic and political system with communism, so the 112th Congress was about as popular as communism at one point. The 112th ends with about 18% approval. The average for all Congresses since 1974 is 33% approval.
2. The 112th Congress worked hard but had few results to show for it. The 112th spent 306 days in session, meaning it spent more days in session than six out of the last ten Congresses. They also cast 1,557 total votes, which was less than the 110th and 111th Congresses but more than any of the previous seven. However, the 112th only saw 200 new laws enacted, which is the lowest result of any of the past ten Congresses. (That figure should rise to about 220 in the final report to reflect laws passed in December and January, such as the fiscal cliff deal).
3. The 112th Congress was the most polarized in history. While the DW-NOMINATE system for scoring legislators on a conservative-liberal axis isn’t perfect, it’s the best approximation we have to show the changing ideological nature of Congress over time. As you can see in the charts below, both the House and Senate were more polarized between the two political parties than ever before. Most of the polarization came from the GOP, which took a particularly sharp turn to the right in 2010.
The 112th Congress is receiving a lot of flack, and most of it is deserved. But calling them a “do-nothing” Congress isn’t quite accurate—they worked more days and took more votes than most Congresses over the last twenty years. And while the amount of new laws they produced was extremely low by historical standards, let’s remember that it’s always tougher to get a law passed when the House and Senate are controlled by different parties. Moreover, the threat of a presidential veto is often enough to stop Congress from even bothering to send him formal legislation, which could have driven down the numbers. Finally, the tendency in recent years to pass massive “omnibus” bills rather than several smaller bills addressing specific topics could also help explain why the number of laws enacted has decreased.
So perhaps the 112th should be known as the “divided” or “gridlocked” Congress instead of the “do-nothing” Congress. In any case, let us hope the 113th gets its act together.