By Chris Cillizza
Saying that Congress is unpopular is kind of like saying that water is wet or that big-time college football is corrupt. It's so obvious as to be assumed. And yet, in 2011 Congress managed to underperform even the low regard in which the American people hold it.
It wasn't just that lawmakers didn't do much in 2011. It was that they didn't do much in a year in which the economy continued to struggle, the nation's collective anxiety soared and, for the first time in modern memory, our fiscal foundations seemed genuinely shaky.
The mismatch between the bigness of the country's problems and the smallness of Congress drove the institution's approval ratings down to used-car-dealer (or even journalist) levels.
An early October Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that just 14 percent of the public approved of the job Congress was doing, a lower ebb than before the 1994, 2006 and 2010 elections — all of which saw huge seat shifts because of widespread voter dissatisfaction. A Gallup survey released in early December showed that three-quarters of the public didn't believe that most members of Congress deserved to win re-election in 2012 — a record high in the poll. (As interesting: Who the heck are the 20 percent who said the majority of members deserved another term?) A December NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed that a measly 1 percent of people thought the 112th Congress was among the "best in years."
How did things get so horribly, terribly, awfully bad for Congress in 2011? No one event stands out; rather, it was a slow-motion collapse in which everyone saw what was happening, but no one was willing to do anything about it. It was operatic in its scope. So here's a look at how Congress failed — in three acts.
ACT I: The budget "deal"
Funding the government is the most fundamental act of the government. But history suggested that passing legislation this spring to do just that could be contentious. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich had played this game of chicken in the mid-1990s, and when neither man blinked, the government did shut down on two occasions. The result was a clear victory for Clinton — thank you, bully pulpit! — that kick-started the incumbent toward an easy reelection in 1996.
House Republicans, with their newly minted majority this year, were well aware of that bit of history, and leaders such as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio were committed to not repeating it.
But Boehner wasn't the only actor in this drama; dozens of tea-party-aligned Republicans, who had helped secure the GOP's House majority, wanted deep cuts to federal agencies as a sign of their willingness to shake up the status quo.
And Democrats were far from blameless in the protracted negotiations. As the clock ticked down toward a shutdown in early April, they worked to score points with their own base — not to mention socially liberal independent voters — by bashing Republicans for their insistence that federal funding for Planned Parenthood be removed in any final agreement.
At the literal 11th hour, the sides finally cut a deal that kept the government operating. Museums stayed open, national parks welcomed visitors. And politicians congratulated themselves. "Today, Americans of different beliefs came together," President Obama said. Boehner received a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers for wringing billions in cuts out of the White House.
But what average Americans what they saw was the dysfunction that led to the deal; Congress looked like a college kid writing a term paper at the last minute. And they didn't like that image one bit. Congress, seemingly oblivious to that fact, came within 27 hours of another government shutdown this past week before reaching an agreement.
ACT II: The debt-ceiling "debate"
If the showdown over shutdown left Americans with a sour taste in their mouths, the fight over whether to raise the nation's debt limit made them downright nauseous.
The stakes were high: A failure to raise the borrowing limit would have forced the government into default on some of its loans and jeopardized America's sterling credit rating. In other words, this wasn't a purely political or even policy fight; the good of the country was in play.
Despite that, both parties took up political posturing early and often. Democrats reminded their Republican colleagues (and voters) that the debt limit had been increased 78 times since 1960 — including 18 times under President Ronald Reagan. Republicans fought back by reminding President Obama that in 2006, Sen. Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama's vote was a "mistake" and that had he known then what he knew now, he would have supported it. (He was against it before he was for it.)
As the debate wore on — and a U.S. default loomed over world financial markets — a fissure appeared within the Republican Party. The leadership seemed resigned to the necessity of a deal, while the tea party wing insisted that the doomsday talk of what might happen if the borrowing limit wasn't raised was badly overblown. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) became the standard-bearer for the tea party position, riding her pledge to never support a debt-ceiling increase to the top tier of the Republican presidential race. ("I will not vote to raise the debt ceiling," Bachmann asserted in one of her first ads first ad of the 2012 contest. "It goes completely contrary to common sense and how I grew up in Iowa.")
Eventually — and stop us if you've heard this one — a compromise was struck less than a day before default would have become a reality. Unlike with the budget compromise four months earlier, the political world grimaced and tried to quickly move on from what it seemed to sense was a debacle of epic proportion. Boehner was clearly dismayed by the lack of a "grand bargain" that would have solved the country's long-term fiscal problems. Obama called the process "messy."
But even the leaders of their parties didn't grasp just how much damage had been done. Days after the debt-ceiling deal, Standard & Poor's downgraded America's credit rating for the first time in history. And, in an after-action analysis of the debt debate, Republican pollster Bill McInturff concluded that the fight had led to a "scary erosion" in the public's faith in the economy and the government "at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded."
ACT III: The "supercommittee"
Out of the ashes of the debt-ceiling fight rose the "supercommittee" — it's more than just a regular old committee! — which was tasked with finding trillions in federal budget cuts, a once-and-for-all solution to our looming national financial crisis.
Two things doomed the supercommittee from the start. First, the 12 members were appointed by their party leadership. And the party leadership had next to no incentive to put real dealmakers on the panel, people empowered to reach an agreement outside of the power of their party leaders.
Second, the trigger date for "sequestration" — a fancy word for automatic, across-the-board cuts that would hit both parties where it hurts — was not the end of 2011 but rather the beginning of 2013, conveniently after the 2012 elections. (There are no accidents in politics.)
What was amazing about the supercommittee was not that it failed — its members released a statement on Nov. 21 acknowledging that they could not find a compromise — but that the American public never expected it to succeed. In a CNN poll released the week before the failure became official, almost eight in 10 Americans said they were "very" or "somewhat" doubtful that the supercommittee could find common ground.
The worst part of the supercommittee's inability to cut a deal was that no one — not the public, not the media and not even the members themselves — was the least bit surprised by it.
What 2011 proved is that failure has become the new normal on Capitol Hill. And for that, Congress, you had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.