Politics & Policy

The Historical Idiocy of Complaining about the Worst Congress Ever

Speaker John Boehner holds the gavel at the first session of the 114th Congress. (Mark Wilson/Getty)
Anyone remember the Fugitive Slave Act?

Scrappy little trendsetter that I am, I shall hereby take the opportunity that novelty has provided and declare it before anyone else has had the chance: The 114th Congress is the worst in the history of the United States — and, possibly, the entire world.

If this sounds far-fetched — or premature — perhaps remind yourself that we are presently engaged in a grand race for historical illiteracy, and that a remarkable number of political pundits and social commentators have already obtained a head start. Pondering the meager achievements of the 113th Congress, Bloomberg’s Barry Ritholtz was moved last July to ask, “Is This the Worst Congress Ever?” — an inquiry that he appeared to answer in the affirmative. This question was also posed by MSNBC’s Steve Benen, by the Hill’s Alexander Bolton, and, if Politico is to be believed, by 5.4 million disgruntled users of the Internet. Other players were less inquisitive. It’s “confirmed,” The Week’s Jon Terbush declared in December, 2013. “History” tells us that “this is the worst Congress ever.” Meanwhile, Dana Milbank was feeling feisty. “Good Riddance to the Worst Congress Ever,” he told his Washington Post readers last month, before proposing mathematically that the 113th “was, by just about every measure, the worst.” Vice’s Harry Cheadle agreed. “The 113th Congress,” Cheadle argued a couple of months into its session, “is by almost any objective standard, the worst Congress of all time.” On Progress Texas, meanwhile, Phillip Martin apportioned some blame for “the worst Congress in U.S. history.” The key villain? Ted Cruz, natch.

A quick search reveals that the “worst ever” line has a rich pedigree. Back in 2012, the ever-historically-challenged Ezra Klein took direct aim at the 113th’s predecessor, sketching out for his Wonkblog devotees no fewer than “14 reasons” why the 112th was “the worst Congress ever.” Klein was joined in this estimation by Norm Ornstein, who bravely channeled the favored punctuation of the petulant schoolgirl and affirmed that the assembly was totally the “Worst. Congress. Ever.” As one might expect, similar accusations were thrown at the 111th, 110th, and the 109th Congresses, too. Damn-ed legislators, hie thee to a monastery!

Ever” is a rather big word, though, isn’t it? Indeed, whatever gripes one has with the federal legislature — and I would rather expect all right-thinking citizens to have at least some — the suggestion that any Congress of the last few decades could be said to have been “the worst” strikes me as an extraordinary one. In recent years, the main charges that have been leveled against our national assembly are: 1) that it has not passed enough legislation; 2) that the few laws that it has passed have been frivolous or futile; 3) that lawmakers who have been sent into the legislature to reflect the will of their constituents have used whatever powers they could to do just that; 4) that, America being a representative democracy, there is from time to time a genuine disconnect between the electorate and their agents; and 5) that, despite the wishes of NPR and the Harvard faculty lounge, rebel lawmakers continue to “re-litigate” government programs that, in a sensible country like Sweden, would by now be the subject of anthems and poetry. These complaints vary in seriousness, and, on occasion, the system’s aristarchs can be said to have a point. And yet, ultimately, they all come down to the same gripe: That the government is declining to act in the manner that some would prefer.

You will forgive me, I presume, if I refuse to become too worked up about that. As in the world of medicine, in which all doctors much first promise primum non nocere (“first, do no harm”), I consider a bias toward inertia to be a considerable blessing in national politics, in which realm the majority of damage is done not by omission but by commission. In times past, American Congresses have engaged in direct attacks on the freedom of speech (the Fifth Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the 65th the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act); they have provided for the entrenchment of human bondage and for the capture of escaped slaves (the 33rd Congress passed the Kansas–Nebraska Act, the 31st passed the Fugitive Slave Act); and they have quite literally ordered the removal of Native Americans from their homelands (in 1830, the 21st Congress passed the Indian Removal Act).

At other points, Congresses have concocted enabling legislation for the disaster that was Prohibition (the 66th passed the “Volstead” Act of 1919); have presumed to control what was not theirs to control (the 73rd Congress approved the National Firearms Act of 1934); have abdicated the war-making powers with which they have been entrusted (the 88th gave LBJ the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution); and have conspired to unleash a disastrous “War on Drugs” that is still causing havoc today (the 63rd Congress gave us the Harrison Act, the 75th wrote and passed the Marihuana Tax Act, and the 91st let loose the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention and Control Act of 1970). With the notable exceptions of the PATRIOT Act and the infinitely malleable enabling law that we have taken to calling “Obamacare,” almost all of these abominations occurred long before our present class of myopics were even born. Perhaps some funding for history books might be in order?

This being so, I would suggest that we refrain from reaching for the smelling salts each and every time the national legislature declines to move forward in dissent-free unison, and recognize instead that a day on which Congress is not attempting to put you in prison for disagreeing with its conception of the good life is a happy day indeed. In so doing, we might come to acknowledge that the “worst ever” refrain is based on little more than a gross misconception of the nature of government, for, pace Klein and his merry ilk, the alternative to a legislature that refuses to reflect the deep divisions in the country it serves is not “efficient” or “modern” or “streamlined” government but dictatorship, civil strife, and, eventually, warfare. As it stands, the United States is a fractious, confused, and deeply divided sort of country, in which voters seem unable to agree on anything much at all. In consequence, its legislature is a fractious, confused, and deeply divided sort of place, in which representatives seem unable to agree on anything much at all. By all means the naysayers should continue to hope for improvement. Indeed, anything else would be contrary to the American character. But some perspective is in order. Once, the legislature sought to return escaped slaves to their chains. Now, it refuses to vote on the carbon taxes that the bien-pensants have decided might be a nice idea. “Worst Congress ever?” Come off it.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.