The 112th Congress is coming to an end. The term won't officially end until the next Congress begins in January, but most of the bloodletting is done.
In both February and August of this year, Gallup polls found this 112th Congress's approval rating as low as 10%, the lowest ever in Gallup's 38 years of performing this poll. The previous low was 14%, in 2008 during the 110th Congress and at the height of the worst economic recession since the 1930's. Prior to 2007, Congressional approval ratings had only fallen below 20% twice - in 1992 and 1979 - both times during a recession.
Throughout the 1980's and much of the 1990's, Congress's approval rating tended to vary between 20% and 40%. Following the economic boom of the late 1990's, then the national unity after 9/11, the rates got as high as 84%, then quickly fell back to the traditional range between 20 and 40, with the average being roughly 30%. A few quick snapshots to illustrate: In December of 2005, it was 29%; in October of 2006 is was 24%; in January of 2007, it was 35%.
Then the economic recession happened. That year, in 2008, the numbers began plummeting. They entered the territory of the teens for the first time in years. As mentioned above, they got as low as 14% at one point.
However, in 2009, a new president and a new Congress came into office and the numbers returned to the normal equilibrium around 30%, getting as high as 39% in March of that year. But the return to normal didn't last. In 2010, the numbers began to fall into the 20's again, and began hovering in the low-20's and upper teens. Even with the start of a new Congress in January of 2011 (the current 112th Congress), there was no new enthusiasm seen in the polls and the bad numbers have continued.
This current Congress has only been at 20% or higher three times and not at all since May of 2011. As stated above, it has twice rated as low as 10% - the lowest ever. Its average approval rating in Gallup polls over the last two years has been 15.4% - easily the lowest in Gallup's history. Compare that to (for instance), the 102nd Congress of 1991-1993 whose average approval rating was 30% (and that was during a mild recession).
So why have this Congress's numbers been so abysmal? What separates this Congress from the one hundred and eleven that have come before it?
There are a lot of reasons, of course. According to a recent editorial in USAToday, which refers to the 112th Congress as the "Do-Nothing Congress" and opines that this Congress is easily the "worst ever" in the modern era, the rise of "rampant partisanship" is clearly the smoking gun, with both Democrats and Republicans "too beholden to special interests" to actually get any legislating done. That's true of course, and the rise in partisanship can also be blamed, I believe, on the flow and availability of information in the modern world, where we are all inundated with different opinions in a constant stream, and everyone can find a partisan niche to wall up around themselves. There's never been a time in U.S. history when so much information and so many different perspectives were so available on such a large scale. Anyone looking for like-minded individuals can find them in the instantaneous click of a mouse, smart phone, or remote control button.
But the fact remains that there have always been partisan divides in this country. We have functioned under a 2-party system for more than 150 years now, and it would be short-sighted, not to mention completely indefensible, to suggest that our partisan quarrels are somehow worse today than at any other time in the past. Republicans and Democrats have always fought over ideologies, management and labor have always been at each other's throats, and the Left and the Right have always been avowed enemies.
So what's different in the last few years?
Enter the Tea Party.
The Tea Party movement seems to have begun around 2008, springing from the 2008 presidential campaign of Texas Republican Ron Paul, a favorite among fiscal conservatives and Libertarians. Following the recession and subsequent federal bailouts of 2008, as well as the election of Barack Obama in November of that year, the movement really got going. According to the website of the so-called Tea Party Patriots, the movement found its voice in 2009 "from the reaction of the American people to fiscally irresponsible actions of the federal government."
Gallup first began tracking support for the Tea Party movement in early 2010. Since that time, support for the movement has been as low as 21% and as high as 32%, with the average during that span (up through August of 2012) around 27% - or roughly 1 in 4 Americans at any given time. Percentages for Americans who claim to be "opponents" of the movement are about the same - averaging around 25%.
What this means, of course, is that the Tea Party first became a major political force in 2010, after about a year of formation. Therefore, the first major federal election that the movement influenced was the 2010 Congressional election - the election that brought in the current low-rated 112th Congress.
In that election, numerous candidates supported by the Tea Party won seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Earlier that year, motivated by the growing strength of the movement, Michele Bachmann, Representative from Minnesota, formed and became the chair of the congressional Tea Party Caucus. After the election later that year, the Caucus grew and currently has 66 members in this 112th Congress, making it one of the biggest ideological caucuses in Congress.
In addition to the 66 official members of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, there are numerous other members of Congress who are affiliated with the Tea Party movement, but have chosen not to join the congressional caucus. Among them are prominent Tea Party favorites like Ron Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio.
The point of all this is to say that our current Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, is heavily populated by active members of the Tea Party movement, or by people closely associated with, and heavily influenced by, the Tea Party.
The fact that the 112th Congress has, in many ways, been characterized by its takeover by the Tea Party, and the fact that this Congress is among the least effective, and certainly the most unpopular of all Congresses in modern memory (remember the Gallup poll numbers above), can surely be no accident or coincidence. The first fact is undoubtedly one of the direct results of the second fact.
I asked above what separates this Congress from the one hundred and eleven that have preceded it. Partisan and ideological divides have always existed, and we have been living in the Information Age, with information overload, for at least 20 years, so the only difference between this Congress and the ones before it is the Tea Party. It's the smoking gun. It's the cause that has led to the effect of an abysmally inoperable Congress, and the most unpopular Congress in modern memory.
So why has the Tea Party caused this situation? What is it, exactly, about the Tea Party movement that has led to such a deadlock in Congress, causing it to be so wildly ineffective and widely condemned?
Two words: No Compromise.
This brief phrase has essentially been the rallying cry of the Tea Party movement. Numerous Tea Party-backed candidates have won election to Congress on this slogan, and have made it the centerpiece of their ideology.
Richard Mourdock, the current Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Indiana had this to say on MSNBC following his primary win in May: "I think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."
An article in the Tea Party Tribune (a Tea Party news website), dealing with budget issues, was titled "Our Moment: No Compromise. No Surrender. Total Victory."
On a Tea Party newsletter from Tennessee, the biggest words on the page are simply: "NO COMPROMISE!"
On Amazon.com, a DVD detailing the history of the Kansas Tea Party says it is produced by "No Compromise Productions."
In the Oregon Tea Party online store, you can buy a hooded sweatshirt with an image of the cracked Liberty Bell and the slogan "No Compromise."
As Juan Williams, of Fox News, wrote in May of this year, "The Tea Party's no-compromise ideology has become an accepted part of the political game."
The fact is, the Tea Party's central political strategy and rallying cry is a refusal to compromise. It's what makes the Tea Party the Tea Party.
Can there be any wonder, then, why the 112th Congress has been so ineffective? When we, as Americans, go to the polls and elect a slew of political leaders who have vowed to never compromise, can we really be surprised when we end up with a deadlocked Congress that gets nothing done? When we end up getting exactly what we asked for?
When people vote for Tea Party candidates who promise no compromise, what sort of government are they expecting to get? One that actually works? In what way is "no compromise" related to the democratic ideals this country was founded on? The fact is, in a free republic, built on democratic principles, compromise is the only way to get anything accomplished. And to our great detriment, we have seen the truth of that statement played out over the last two years during this 112th Congress. No compromise means, effectively, no government. Is that really what we want as a country? Maybe it's time to start voting for candidates, Republican or Democrat or any other party, who actually want to compromise, who actually want to move this country forward into the 21st century, instead of imagining a fantasy world where the 18th century lives forever.
And, of course, that's the really ironic thing about the Tea Party movement. They claim to uphold the ideals of the Founding Fathers, but what they are really upholding are the very ideals that the Founding Fathers fought against and revolted against.
"No Compromise" is the rallying cry of autocrats and dictators.
Dictators don't compromise. In a free society, compromise is what sets us apart from dictatorships. And the Founding Fathers knew compromise better than any Republican or Democrat alive today. A simple elementary school review of the drafting of the Constitution makes that abundantly clear.
If you think Congress is ineffective; if you are tired of the partisan gridlock in Washington; if you are ready to see this country move forward; then you might want ask yourself if the group of "No Compromise" is really who you want to be casting your vote for.
As long as we continue to elect ideologues who refuse to compromise, we will continue to get exactly what we asked for - a pitifully ineffective, virtually inoperable Congress that only masquerades as a government.