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Was the first session of the 112th Congress the worst ever?

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times –

WASHINGTON — Now that the payroll-tax-break debacle has been resolved (for two months, anyway), it’s time to ponder: Was the first session of the 112th Congress the worst ever?

The verdict from voters, political scientists and lawmakers themselves: It’s a strong contender, if not the winner.

After all, 2011 began with a House Republican vote to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law and ended with a flip-flop over the 60-day tax-cut extender — with detours in between for the two parties to flirt with shutting down the government, jeopardize the nation’s credit and assorted legislative mayhem.

That may go down as one of the most dysfunctional sessions, said Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and author of “Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock.”

After two years of Democratic control over both chambers of Congress and the White House, Republicans gained majority in the House this year. The modern-era benchmark for gridlock is pretty high — or low, depending on your view. The 102nd Congress under President George H.W. Bush, according to Binder’s analysis, left 65 percent of its policy agenda unfinished. The 103rd under President Bill Clinton didn’t fare much better.

Other congressional experts say the first half of the 112th Congress was remarkable as much for its belligerent tone as for its lack of productivity.

Burdett “Bird” Loomis, a political-science professor at the University of Kansas, said some previous congresses — including during the time of Clinton’s impeachment and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contact with America agenda — were highly partisan but still managed to accomplish something, or at least tried.

In contrast, Loomis said, this year’s tea-party-driven House “has been aggressively negative and destructive. And the so-called compromises have been reactions to hostage-taking, not well-considered give and take.”

“If I didn’t have to pay attention for my job,” Loomis said, “I might try to ignore the Congress.”

Likewise, Chris Deering, a congressional scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said watching Congress this year has been an exasperating ordeal.

When Deering’s 87-year-old father, an anti-tax conservative, groused about the do-nothing Congress, Deering snapped, “They’re not spending any money. You should be happy.”

Experts say divided control of government, policy differences between the House and Senate, a polarized electorate and the 2012 presidential election all have exacerbated Congress’ natural tendency to disagree.

Even veteran lawmakers say they’ve never seen anything quite like this year’s spectacle.

However, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who was elected to the House in 1988, doesn’t believe this was the worst Congress.

“But it’s certainly the worst one I remember participating in,” he said.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., pinned the gridlock on “totally unrealistic” House tea-party members who reflexively are opposed to any Democratic proposals.

“They have no agenda for job creation,” Dicks said.

Republicans counter that their strategy is to restore the federal government’s fiscal health by reducing spending and shrinking the deficit.

Some voters, however, say they’re fed up with both parties.

Matt Beattie, a sales executive from Sammamish, Wash., said he’s incensed at Democratic senators for failing to resolve budget and tax-policy issues during their two years of majority control.

As for Republicans, Beattie said, “they are betting that obstructing Obama is enough to get votes.”

“I truly believe that this may be the worst and most disingenuous Congress in history,” he said.

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