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history lessons

Chambers of Doom: Is This the Worst Congress Ever?

No less an authority than congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, who literally wrote the book on Hill dysfunction, has taken to calling our disaster-courting 112th Congress the worst in history. Here, how its accomplishments stack up against famously awful sessions of yore.

The Ball-Dropping 112th (2011-2013)
Where to start? With GOP freshmen and assorted long-serving right-wingers in open revolt, House gridlock has gone from merely frustrating to outright scary—and meanwhile, the Senate is so far voting only half as often as it did during the last maddeningly bottlenecked session. Some post offices have been renamed, though.

Ye Olde Widely Reviled 46th (1879-1881)
In an era rife with heated conflicts over some very fundamental issues—what rights black people should have, what to use as currency, a disputed presidential election—more senators were booted in 1880 than in any year since.
Percentage of incumbent senators reelected in 2010: 83%
Percentage of incumbent senators reelected in 1880: 53%

The Useless 104th (1995-1997)
This chapter of Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution is best remembered for the 21-day government shutdown of 1995-1996, but these legislators also managed to pass the fewest laws of any Congress since World War II.
Laws passed by the 104th: 1,834
Laws passed by the 1949-1951 81st (the most active postwar Congress): 5,764

The Bitterly Divided 111th (2009-2011)
National Journal found that last session’s Congress was the most polarized since it started tracking congressional votes in 1982. No Democratic senator voted more conservatively than the most liberal Republican, and vice versa.

The Inarguably-Awful 37th (1861-1863)
The very least that can be said for the other congressional classes on this list is that they did not oversee the eruption of a catastrophic civil war.

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