Newsflash! Americans United Against a Divided Congress

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Right now, Congress is everyone’s favorite punching bag. According to Gallup surveys, the congressional job approval rating fell to a record low of just 9 percent in November, down from 11 percent in October and 19 percent in September. This year to date, Congress has averaged a job approval rating of 14 percent, which is well below its long-term (1974 to 2012) average of 33 percent.

The reason why seems straightforward: policymakers are getting very little done. In the first half of the year, President Barack Obama had signed just 11 acts (all of which have to originate in Congress) into public law, and by July, the 113th Congress was already being lambasted as one of the least productive in history, even under performing the notoriously unproductive congresses of 1995 when the GOP took both houses for the first time since 1955.

In a June Gallup survey, a net 59 percent of respondents reported that ineffectiveness and partisan gridlock were a reason why they disapproved of the job Congress is doing. The October fiscal showdown and partial shutdown reaffirmed the criticism. Deep political impasse over the Affordable Care Act and the budget brought U.S. policy making to a grinding halt for nearly three weeks, and the stopgap resolution appears to promise future gridlock.

“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years,” wrote Thomas Man and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in an April op-ed in the Washington Post, “and never have we seen them this dysfunctional.”

Accountability for the dysfunction has been shot between the parties like cannonballs between ships. While the problem is largely institutional, blame condensed around the Republican party during the October shutdown. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted October 7-9 showed that 53 percent of American’s blamed the GOP for the shutdown, with a 21 percent favorable view of the Tea Party, who were the perceived catalysts of the impasse. ”In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted,” wrote Mann and Ornstein. “Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”

Mann and Ornstein illustrate a picture where both parties have moved away from the center and grown more extreme over the past few decades. Extremity, they argue, indicates dysfunction, writing that, “Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.” From their perspective (the AEI is a conservative think tank), it is the GOP that has moved farther from the center and therefore contributed more to the dysfunction.

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