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Worst. Congress. Ever.
"For those who really believe in limited government, then there's virtue in being away from Washington, it's not all bad that we spend less time here. A lot of what we do and a lot of the disdain people have for Washington is because we do too much, not too little. I still believe that if people understood exactly what we do here, they'd probably demand we take more time off."
-- Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
If you can follow the aptly named Jeff Flake's circular wordplay above, as reported by ABC News' John Cochran, he may persuade you that it's fair for our elected representatives to get so much time away from the office. But it's hard to believe that the average American, who annually earns somewhere in the mid-40s depending on whose numbers you believe, likes the fact that their elected representatives take home around 150K a year for less work, not more.
How much work are we talking about? Suck on this, prole: By the time 2006 dies, the House of Representatives will have met for less than 100 days [PDF] for the first time since 1948. In case you're a fan of the math -- which you should be, since you're paying their salaries -- that means your representative is working roughly one-third of the year and getting paid three times as much as you.
Who's the slacker now?
Of course, the numbers don't end there, and the more they're sorted out, the more they add up to a reasonable, evidenced conclusion: The 109th Congress is one of the worst in U.S. history, if not the worst. And it's not just the House that has seemed to have lost its keys to the car, because the Senate fares no better. They're projected to knock heads for less than 130 days in 2006, which is approximately the sixth fewest meetings since 1948, a year of infamy that found Harry Truman similarly knocking heads with the 80th, which he nicknamed for the history books as America's "Do-Nothing" Congress.
The 80th would have met even less if they could have, were it not for the fact that Truman called them into extraordinary session twice. So far, the 109th hasn't done anything extraordinary for the American people, nor has president Bush asked them to. No wonder there: Bush himself has taken more vacation days than any other president, breaking his mentor Ronald Reagan's record in August 2005. When in Washington.... Or is that Crawford?
What the 109th Congress has done to the American people is another matter entirely, and it's appropriate once more to name-drop the oft-mentioned year 1948 before letting it rest. Why? Numbers, people, numbers. That was the year George Orwell turned inside out, literally, in his game-changing dystopian novel 1984, and we all remember how that narrative ended. (With one plus one equaling three, to be exact.)
And on that score, pardon the pun, the 109th Congress cannot but help dredge up the memories of both 1948 and 1984, because although they have managed to pass little if no legislation to help the average American get through the night, they have bent over backwards to reward the rich and empower the executive branch at the expense of civil liberties, the Constitution and democracy itself. If that's not Orwellian, I don't know what is.
For example, take a look at the actual work they did manage to get done. The recently passed Military Commissions Act of 2006, roundly derided as the "torture bill" by those with a secure sense of history, gives president Bush authority that would make Big Brother tingle in places Mark Foley would like to touch. Section 950j of the bill outright criminalizes Supreme and other court challenges to the Act's legality; subsection 4(b) (26) of section 950v offers up anyone, not just military personnel, who is "in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States" to the mercy of military tribunals; and the bill itself redefines the meaning of terrorist so loosely that it now includes those who take part in "the destruction of any property" and "any violent activity whatsoever if it takes place near a designated protected building," as well as those who illegally occupy property and or steal, well, pretty much anything at all.
As online agitators Paul Joseph Watson and Alex Jones wrote, that "makes squatters and petty thieves enemy combatants." If they're too far out of orbit for your tastes, then consider the words of a serious insider, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): "It is unconstitutional. It is un-American. It is designed to ensure the Bush-Cheney administration will never again be embarrassed by a United States Supreme Court decision reviewing its unlawful abuses of power." The New York Times published an editorial calling it "a tyrannical law that will be ranked with the low points in American democracy, our generation's version of the Alien and Sedition Acts."
Leahy's last line is instructive for our purposes, if only to show how much has changed since Harry Truman crashed skulls with his "Do-Nothing" 80th: These days, Congress is doing a whole lot of nothing on the job precisely because the president wants them to. Except, as in the case of the Military Commissions Act, where he wants them to do everything short of giving him the type of unlimited power that might turn Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine as green as Yoda with envy.
And that's just one particularly nasty piece of legislation that the 109th has turned out. There are plenty more stink bombs where that came from. Passed in 2005, Public Law 109-3, otherwise infamously remembered as Theresa Marie Schiavo's law, empowered the parents of Teri Schiavo to file suit against anyone who was "party to State court proceedings relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids, or medical treatment necessary to sustain [her] life." How politically expedient was that legislation? It unanimously passed the Senate 3-0 on a Sunday afternoon, with 97 out of 100 Senators not even in attendance, and only made the grade because Bush was decided it was important enough to sign at 1AM after returning from (where else?) vacation in Crawford.
It gets worse. The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act increased already ridiculous penalties for copyright infringement and cleared the way for technology designed to "sanitize" salacious DVD content. Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 extended Bush's all-important tax cuts, designed to benefit not average Americans but the nation's richest. Even stranger was the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which calls for the creation and circulation of dollar coins featuring all of the U.S. presidents and won't take more than a decade or so to run its temporal course.
And while making sure that the United States has more than enough $1 coins seems more important to politicians like Jeff Flake than tackling global warming, the war in Iraq or the exponentially increasing deficit about to be bequeathed to Generation X-box and those that come after it, the nation itself isn't buying what the 109th is selling. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, only 25 percent of Americans responded that Congress was doing its job; meanwhile, 66 percent asserted that the 109th had done much less than normal over the last couple of years. And it's not like they didn't get the memo. Since December 2005, three major Republicans have resigned from the 109th in shame, including Duke Cunningham, Tom Delay and their latest disgrace, Mark Foley. And the clusterfuck isn't over yet: By the time the smoke clears from what the 109th Congress is best equipped to produce -- con-tro-versy! -- Dennis Hastert and others could end up on the killing floor.
It could be argued that if the 109th Congress wasn't entangled in so many schemes, scams and sex scandals, it might actually be able to meet more and do a better job of helping the American population withstand a full frontal assault on their rights and checkbooks. But that would be jacking into the type of hyperreal matrix that talking heads and other media hacks love to fortify in lieu of stating the obvious, which is not so glamorous or complex.
The reality is this: The 109th Congress is far from a clot of "Do-Nothing" politicians. Having secured a majority in both houses and a strategical collusion with the executive branch, they have done something no other Congress has managed to do in American history: Give the president of the United States power and abilities -- to monitor, to prosecute, to incarcerate, to torture, to kill -- that approach those of the most totalitarian regimes in recent memory. It may not be 1948 or 1984 anymore, but the new millennium, with the help of America's elected representatives, is primed to look more and more like a pre-millennial dictatorship than ever. And for that, you can thank the fighting 109th, the most defeated Congress in American history.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, Wired, All Music Guide and others.