In Praise of An Unpopular Congress

What's wrong with Congress? Absolutely nothing, that's what.


For more than 20 years, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has been measuring how voters feel about Congress. And "perhaps unsurprisingly," writes Ezra Klein, "a majority of Americans—a new record—thinks the current Congress is one of the worst ever." Klein, like many other liberal pundits, has written numerous pieces about how Congress is the worst/laziest/rottenest ever, so this works out well for him. Not getting your way all the time can be frustrating.

"96 percent of Americans think this Congress is at or below average. What's wrong with the other 4 percent?" asked Klein in a tweet.

What's wrong? Absolutely nothing, that's what. Though I can't speak for all 4 percenters, as someone who believes this Congress has been one of the most (inadvertently) effective and underrated in American history, I can offer a number of my own reasons.

Voters tend to believe a lot of myths about American government. We believe gridlock is unhealthy (even though historically, we tend to favor divided government). We believe that the majority should always have its way, that popular ideas automatically deserve up-or-down votes and that Congress is more "productive" when it passes lots of laws.

Klein once argued that the No. 1 reason a GOP Congress was "the worst ever" was that it was "not passing laws," which is the "simplest measure of congressional productivity." The simplest and also the most misleading. Admittedly, we tend to measure productivity by goals scored, when often we should be measuring it by goals against average. And John Boehner's House, often pressured by a minority within the minority, has made saves on all kinds of terrible bills.

Americans reflexively dislike gridlock. I get that. In the real world, we like to get stuff done. So do politicians. But this iteration of the Democratic Party has passed more significant legislation than any other in memory—including a complete overhaul of health care and fiscal policy. It was this Democratic Party that championed legislation mandating the participation of every citizen, without attaining even the minimum standard of consensus or input from the other party.

So today's intractable GOP Congress—despite its often amateurish politics, overreaches and missteps—is an organic safeguard against that kind of irresponsible centralized democracy. On that merit alone, it should be a lot more popular. And if the ideological gap continues to expand (both sides becoming more purist) and Washington's big notions keep intruding on the ability of states and individuals to live by their own ideas and ideals, gridlock will be the only remedy. As hapless as the GOP has been, this is how the Founding Fathers planned it.

Then again, I do wonder whether these ham-fisted congressional approval polls tell us as much about our distaste for Congress as pundits think they do.

Despite the widespread belief that gridlock is the primary driver of Congress' unpopularity, we all have our own bone to pick with politicians. Trust me; not many conservatives walk around lamenting the fact that Congress doesn't pass more laws. More than likely, many respondents are frustrated by the perception/reality that the GOP isn't politically effective, that it's too weak and too accommodating. Check out the anger provoked by the recent budget deal (which is, indeed, awful). If these polls deciphered why respondents are unhappy with Congress, we'd probably end up with something resembling the partisan splits we see in most other polls.

Moreover, disliking Congress is basically akin to disliking lawyers or journalists. Sure, they deserve it, but it's still often perfunctory. If we truly loathed Congress as much as we maintain, we wouldn't reliably vote for incumbents. We love our member of Congress. Incumbents, in fact, are safer today than they have been in many decades. I'm going to guess there's a 96 percent chance that your representative has a better approval rating in his or her district than President Barack Obama does nationally.

So there are probably numerous factors driving Congress' unpopularity. It's doubtless that some of those factors conflict with one another. So hate Congress if you must. But if, as liberal pundits argue, an overwhelming majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the House because it's not passing enough laws to hit some arbitrary quota, then the large majority of Americans have absolutely no clue what healthy republican government is supposed to look like.

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  1. You know who else favored gridlock?

    1. I’ll just come right out and say it. Hitler, Mr Harsanyi. Hitler.

      1. Well, shit, man, you must be just like Hitler, then! Hitler favored gridlock, Hitler breathed oxygen, you favor gridlock, you breathe oxygen? What more can I say?!?! I rest my (brain) case!!!

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          It CAN’T be healthy!

          1. Not my stuff. There is no contamination of my precious bodily fluids.

          2. They don’t use beer…

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  2. I’ll never know how Ted Cruz doesn’t just repeat the talking points;
    Unprecedented amounts spent on the slowest economic recovery in US history and it wasn’t until Congress shut the government down that the economy started to recover and when it started back up… we got Obamacare.

    Not that any of them have really anything to do with one another exactly, but the association between gridlock and efficacy isn’t exactly written in stone either.

    1. “Unprecedented amounts spent on the slowest economic recovery in US history ”

      Look, at least several dozen people got their windows re-caulked for free and a handful of government “set aside” contractors made bank.

      Are you some kind of red commie or sumpin ?

      1. Are you some kind of red commie or sumpin ?

        Because if you are, well we’ve got a specially tailored stimulus package just for you. Forward

      2. And Fiskar got, uh,…
        Oh, the hell with it.

  3. Congress would be amazing if it did nothing…and had done nothing for 220 years.

    The problem is that just having one Congress out of many do nothing doesn’t really help us. The only way this could ever be a good Congress is if it repealed more than it passed.

    But I think it’s fair to say that it’s underrated, I wouldn’t exactly cheer, either:
    Hooray! It could have been worse…?

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  5. hmmmm… I too, think that “this Congress” has been busy. Just the bipartisan gerrymandering negotiations alone must be pretty intense.. Then you add all the fund raising.. Which is going VERY well, thank you, and you can see how these guys are busy.

    When Congress wants to do something, say rubber stamp a war, or bail out their campaign contributors, they become a well oiled legislating machine composed of far seeing statesmen and gentlemen legislators.

    When Congress doesn’t want to do something, they divide into “two parties” and blame each other for not doing it. Gridlock never happens.

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  7. Well, now that the executive branch has taken over the government via the reign of alphabet agencies, the institution of Congress seems less and less relevant.

    The Senate has not even presented a budget in five years, but somehow the government is running trillion-dollar deficits (via fiat paper “stimulus” efforts from none other than the Architect of the matrix, Ben Bernank).

    Does Congress still even have the power of the purse? Bernanke acted like he was too cool for school, like answering questions was just a formality. But why even bother having a budget, if the Fed can just perpetually buy as much Treasury debt as it wants, and the government is thus free to perpetually spend as much as it wants? Hell, that’s been the real story of the last five years.

  8. upto I saw the check for $9707, I be certain that…my… mom in-law woz like actualy taking home money part time at their computer.. there sisters roommate has been doing this 4 only six months and just repayed the morgage on there home and got a new Alfa Romeo. Find Out More http://WWW.CASH46.COM

  9. Congress is doing exactly what it’s corporate masters tell it to do, as they have been for fifty years. Same old story, new caption.

    1. moneyed interests have been buying our government from the start, its just that only since progyism began around the turn of the century that there has been so much too buy, some 19th century examples are Indian wars, tariffs, and the transcontinental railroad + so much more.

  10. What’s wrong with Congress? Absolutely nothing, that’s what.

    No. Just no.

    The other side’s arguments being terrible doesn’t make this Congress not terrible. They have a strong can-kicking leg, and that’s about it.

  11. Someone wanna tell me why ThinkProgress would ban this comment?

    xx self funding as in people being taxed out the wazoo?

    News flash, as of now maybe 500,000 have “enrolled” (scare quotes are to address the fact that there’s a flexible interpretation from the administration about enrollment) and about 4 million have lost their insurance – which was working out just dandy for them, despite the administrations opinion.

    People are being charged more for less quality – not even factoring in the effect of higher co-pays and deductibles – and few really qualify for subsidies. Everything in O’Care has cost exponentially more than promised. Inefficiency and waste are endemic in the system and it has yet to fully kick in. The administration is scrambling to cover it’s collective neck in full panic mode. And the biggest laugh is that it’s all the worst possible advertisement for government-run single payer.

    If this is success to you progressives I’d hate to see you think is failure 😉

    (Okay, ThinkP, hit me with your banhammer!)

    1. The whole thing was the comment? I can’t tell without quotations.

      In any event, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

      They’re just being assholes.

      After all, they’re progressives.

      1. Yes, that was the whole thing. And, yeah, I guess “assholes” covers it pretty well.

        Thanks 🙂

  12. OK Reason. I love what you do, but these bots are getting a little ridiculous.

  13. “It was this Democratic Party that championed legislation mandating the participation of every citizen, without attaining even the minimum standard of consensus or input from the other party.”

    You’ve got that backwards. It was the Republicans who first championed a mandate, or have you forgotten it was first theorized by Heritage and then enacted into law in Massachusetts by a Republican. Democrats at best copied it.

    And the last part is the most laughable. Consensus? You yourself in the article are championing doing nothing at all, for which you give high praise to the Republicans. So what consensus was to be gained from them…if you had your way it would be to do nothing.

    So if you don’t want to play, then don’t. But don’t whine when the other guys stop asking you to join in…your act is getting old.

    1. If only they would quit asking us to join in, but in reality they force us to join in through taxation.

      There is nothing wrong with not wanting laws passed because we don’t want to pay for more laws.

      And btw you should know that we see through your straw man attack trying to identify us as republicans. I think many of us are glad Romney lost the election because 4yrs of do nothing is superior to any “compromise” Romney would have tried to pass.

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