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The New 113th Congress May Be the Worst in History

The 112th Congress is widely considered the worst legislative class ever. In fact, Ezra Klein outlined 14 reasons why last July. Its shortcomings are readily apparent. Thus far it has failed to pass a budget. The legislators' inability to cooperate during the routine debt ceiling debate in 2011 caused an unprecedented U.S. credit downgrade, bringing the Republic to the economic brink. 

The consequences of Congress' failure to advance a compelling solution to the nation's fiscal problems will continue to unfold during the entirely manufactured fiscal cliff crisis in the coming months. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled House squandered precious time on meaningless symbolic bills, including a staggering 33 attempts at repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. These futile attempts cost an estimated $50 million, according to CBS News.

Oh, and Congress also speaks at the literacy level of a high school sophomore. No wonder it had an all-time low approval rating of just 10%.

Yet in the aftermath of the 2012 election, very little has changed. Over at the White House, President Obama kept his job. Democrats and Republicans retained control of the Senate and House, respectively. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate and several in the House, though six races remain too close to call.

Given Congress' enormous unpopularity, the fact that so little has changed seems outrageous. However, a seldom-referenced fact may explain the static nature of Congress. While Americans detest Congress collectively, individual congressmen are popular among their direct constituents. 

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), for example, enjoyed a 57/36 approval rating with Maine Republicans, and an even higher 76/20 rating among Democrats as of late September. Of course, Maine residents have no say in Texas. Texans have no say in California, whose citizens have no say in North Dakota. And obviously North Dakota residents can't vote in Illinois. So while individual states may approve of their agents in Congress, that may well be where their approval ends.

So what can we expect from this gridlocked, unchanged, putatively distinguished institution? Many, myself included, have stressed that genuine change in Congress only can occur if guided by effective leadership. Most importantly, President Obama must eschew his aloof approach to congressional interactions and be more successful at negotiating from the White House. Absent that leadership from Obama and Congress' key movers, the 113th looks eerily similar to the 112th.

Senate

Despite unexpectedly picking up two seats, Senate Democrats still do not have the requisite 60 votes to invoke cloture, the formal mechanism for ending a filibuster. This means Republicans can still hold up any legislation they find unpalatable.

But it's unclear if Senate Republicans, who have always been less strident than their House counterparts, will want to be the face of obstructionism during this cycle. Many in GOP circles recognized a clear message in their November 6 losses, even if they stopped short of acknowledging that those losses amounted to a mandate for the Democrats.

Affecting change in the Senate, even if just to foster more productive dialogue, is totally feasible. According to Bob Woodward's The Price of Politics, during summer 2011 Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was consistently willing to negotiate with Democrats. Indeed, both he and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seemed less concerned with the substance of the agreement than with actually having something to sign. President Obama and his Democratic allies have plenty of room to maneuver in the Senate, particularly with regard to upcoming debt and budget talks.

House

The House is the obvious wildcard in the 113th Congress. A vocal, rebellious Republican freshman class consistently challenged Speaker Boehner's leadership, often rallying instead behind ambitious Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). 

Once the fiscal cliff scenario is resolved, it's hard to say how the House will approach President Obama's agenda. The Tea Party has been notoriously unwilling to deal with him. While the nation's fiscal problems and a renewed call for immigration reform can induce some productivity, the more quintessentially liberal measures President Obama is expected to push later in his term will almost surely face significant opposition. 

Climate change legislation, further implementation of Obamacare, and perhaps even a renewed push for gun control legislation are all strong possibilities in the near future. Given Republicans' obstinancy on guns — National Rifle Association (NRA) control over the party is second only to Grover Norquist's — skepticism on climate change, and unbridled hatred for Obama's signature legislative achievement, these will undoubtedly be the critical battles of the next two to four  years.

Bring on 2014.

This is the fourth installment of my five-piece series "2012 Election Reflections." Previous entries include "2016 Presidential Candidates: How Ryan, Rubio and Christie Could Change the GOP," "6 Simple Reasons Why Barack Obama Won and Mitt Romney Lost," and "When This is All Over, Everyone Should Make a Concerted Effort to Return to Civility."

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