Charles Pierce, the pugnacious longtime writer and reporter who currently steers Esquire's politics blog, is fond of referring to the Congress bestowed upon the nation in 2010 — and re-gifted to the nation by gerrymandering and geographic sorting in 2012 — as the worst in U.S. history. Barring a swift and sudden descent into an apocalyptic Civil War that kills as much as 2.5 percent of the entire population, I'll stick with the 36th (or really any of the ones throughout the 1850s). But if you look at not only the public's contemporary estimation of how Congress is doing its job but also how much of its job Congress has even been doing, you've got to admit that Pierce has some ground to stand on while making his case.
Well, I've got some good news and some bad news for Pierce and those who generally share his view. The good news is that the time of the current Congress, the 113th, is finally running out. The bad news? There's increasing reason to believe that its successor, the 114th, will be even worse.
The reason to expect the worst for 2015 and 2016 can be broken down into three distinct parts: 1. A Republican-controlled Senate; 2. an even nuttier House caucus; and 3. a serious threat to the speakership of Rep. John Boehner. If only one of them happens, the next Congress may be no better than the one we have today — but it'll probably be no worse. If two happen, the chances for a government shutdown increase substantially. If it's all three, we'll be lucky to get impeachment.
I'm not going to go into much detail when it comes to the first, most likely and perhaps most damaging individual outcome, which is a GOP takeover of the U.S. Senate. You could fill the Smithsonian with everything that's been written already about this year's Senate race and why it matters. Suffice it to say that anyone so inclined will have a difficult time explaining to the Supreme Court, the EPA and the millions now relying on Obamacare why it doesn't matter who's running the Senate so long as Obama's still president.
On the second point — the House GOP getting even more radical — let's turn to the New York Times, which had a well-done and chilling report on the topic earlier this week. The short version is that the aforementioned gerrymandering/geographic sort dynamic has created such a high number of super-conservative, uncompetitive districts that even candidates so far on the right-wing fringe as to claim that Islam is not a religion, single mothers are child-abusers and Hillary Clinton is the antichrist have more than a decent chance. In example after example, the Times tells the story of a Republican who as recently as 10 years ago would be considered very conservative being replaced by one who would be charitably described as frequently sounding insane.
And that leads us to the third possibility, which the Times hints at but which has otherwise thus far gone underappreciated, that this even more conservative House GOP will scare Speaker Boehner into playing with fire. Keep in mind that during the government shutdown of late last year, Boehner, by most accounts, was doing his best to appease the fire-breathers in his caucus by stopping most of the federal government's operations and tiptoeing to the edge of national default. His moves were widely interpreted as a sop to a vocal minority of House Republicans who rightly see Boehner as an old-fashioned political hack rather than a fellow true believer, and who came surprisingly close to ousting him in early 2013.
If Boehner was willing to drift into the abyss less than a year after the GOP's disappointing performance in the 2012 elections, when Obama's approval rating was considerably higher than it is today and when the Senate was in the Democrats' control, what might he do next year, with a Republican Senate and a triumphant, cocky GOP base? Hold another 50 votes to repeal Obamacare? Form a new select committee to investigate "fast and furious" and the IRS? Send articles of impeachment to fellow Republicans in the Senate? Play games with the nation's credit — and the global economy — once again?
Some Democrats peering into the bleakness in search of a silver lining have mentioned how Hillary Clinton's impending 2016 presidential campaign will likely be helped if a GOP takeover allows her to sidestep defending President Obama and focus instead on slamming the Republican Senate. Not being much of an optimist, I find this theory unpersuasive, though its adherents are certainly welcome to it. The unpleasant truth is that the 114th Congress is far more likely to consciously do great damage in the next two years than it is to inadvertently usher in another Democratic president. Charles Pierce may now be saying the 113th is history's worst Congress; by 2016, he may be painfully reminded that things can always get worse.