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The Best Reporting on What’s Wrong with Congress

As the Senate tries to fix the filibuster, we've rounded up the best stories on the dysfunction in Congress.

Back in 2011, we rounded up some of the best stories about the 112th Congress, the least productive in decades. Since then, things seem to have gotten even worse. The 113th Congress is just three weeks old, and 82 percent of Americans already disapprove of it — the highest percentage for a new Congress since The New York Times and CBS News began asking the question two decades ago.

As Senate leaders claim to havereached a deal to reform the filibuster — a key source of congressional dysfunction this past term — we’ve rounded up the best new reporting on what’s wrong with Congress:

Let’s Talk, The New Yorker ($), January 2013

Ezra Klein details the history of the filibuster — from its origins in 1806 to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s filibuster of his own bill in December — and the current efforts to reform it. “No President in American history has seen his initiatives filibustered with anything even approaching the frequency with which the tactic has been used against Obama,” he writes. “If not for the filibuster, the Affordable Care Act would include a public option, the stimulus would have been hundreds of billions of dollars larger and a plan to cap and trade carbon emission would likely have passed the Senate.”

The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, The New York Times, November 2012

Republican filibusters aren’t the only thing clogging up the Senate. Democrats have used a combative maneuver known as “filling the tree” more than 20 times in each of the last three sessions of Congress.

Call Time for Congress Shows How Fundraising Dominates Bleak Work Life, The Huffington Post, January 2013

Two Huffington Post reporters got their hands on a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee PowerPoint for freshmen representatives. It includes a “model daily schedule” that suggests devoting four hours a day to “call time” — i.e., time on the phone with donors — and another hour to “strategic outreach,” which includes fundraisers. That leaves only three to four hours a day “designated for the actual work of being a member of Congress — hearings, votes, and meetings with constituents.”

As Ezra Klein points out, all that fundraising leaves little time for things such as, say, having lunch with your colleagues. “We’re not here on Mondays,” Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, told Klein. “Tuesday is the party caucuses. Thursday’s the policy lunch and Friday you’re out of here. So that only leaves Wednesday. And what are people doing Wednesday? They’re out raising money. Everybody’s at a fundraiser. I mean, so there is no time any longer for these lunches that we used to have.”

Group from Congress Asks, Why Does America Hate Us? (Answer: See Congress), The New York Times, January 2013

A dozen members of Congress met in New York last week to discuss, among other things, why a recent poll rated them worse than cockroaches and colonoscopies. They’re members of a new bipartisan group called No Labels, which aims to address Congressional dysfunction. Many of them are newly elected and, upon arriving in Washington, “had the same reaction as their constituents to the workings of Congress: they were appalled.” “We are incentivized to do crazy things,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.

Shift on Executive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals, The New York Times, April 2012

When Obama was a senator and a presidential candidate, he criticized President George W. Bush for sidestepping Congress. But in the final year of his first term, Obama, frustrated with Congress’s lack of action, exercised his executive power to do everything from raising fuel economy standards to halting deportations of illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. Republicans have accused him of abusing his power, especially with regard to his recent executive orders on gun violence.

Outgoing Congress Proves to Be Unproductive to the End, The Washington Post, December 2012

How productive was Congress last year? “It’s been like watching paint dry,” said Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. The 112th Congress passed fewer bills than any Congress in decades — failing, among other things, to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act or pass a much-needed farm bill.

14 Reasons Why This Is the Worst Congress Ever, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, July 2012

The 112th Congress may not have passed many laws, but the House found time to vote to repeal the president’s health care law at least 33 times. They also managed to be the most polarized Congress since Reconstruction, according to one study, and gave up on passing budgets. To top it off, Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, blocked the nomination to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors of Peter Diamond, who had recently won a Nobel prize in economics. Diamond was never confirmed.

Deeply Riven Congress to Recess Again, Just for Politics, The Boston Globe, September 2012

Congress took a five-week break this summer, returned for eight days and recessed again. During that time, they managed to pass a continuing resolution that will keep the government running until March 27. But Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who has since retired, wasn’t impressed. “I don’t consider that a great accomplishment,” he said. “That would be like getting points for breathing.”

The Empty Chamber, The New Yorker, August 2010

OK, we included George Packer’s piece about the Senate in our last roundup, too. But it’s still the best account of how the chamber works these days: “In general, when senators give speeches on the floor, their colleagues aren’t around, and the two or three who might be present aren’t listening. They’re joking with aides, or emailing Twitter ideas to their press secretaries, or getting their first look at a speech they’re about to give before the eight unmanned cameras that provide a live feed to C-SPAN2.”

With Olympia Snowe’s Retirement, the Center Crumbles, Politico, February 2012

The Senate lost three of its few remaining moderates when the 112th Congress ended this month: Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican; Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat; and Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina — not a moderate, but occasionally a maverick — blamed the Senate’s dysfunction for driving them out. “The sense is that the body has sort of lost its way, and ‘Do I want to spend six more years if I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel?’” Graham said. “I guess what Olympia’s telling us is that she doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Five Obscure Tactics to Snarl Congress, The Boston Globe, June 2012

Think fixing the filibuster will fix the Senate? Creative senators could use other procedural moves — such as fleeing the Capitol to keep the Senate from achieving quorum or using a “layover rule” to delay the vote on a bill for three days while it’s published and considered — to continue to gum up the works.

Theodoric Meyer

Theodoric Meyer is a former ProPublica reporting fellow. He was previously an intern at The New York Times and The Seattle Times.

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