Only 10 percent of voters approve of the job it is doing, according to one new national poll. And another survey reports only 26 percent have a positive view of Republicans, who control the U.S. House of Representatives and can block votes in the Senate.
More than half of American voters think this is one of the worst Congresses ever, the polls say.
Congress seems paralyzed. Unable to agree on a budget, it has allowed automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to click into effect.
The leading groups favoring those cuts are some conservative organizations that want so badly to cut government spending they hardly care how it will be done. They even agree to slash military spending, which they usually support.
With more automatic budget cuts looming, Congress gave itself one more chance. It appointed a huge, unwieldy committee to come up with a solution. Fortunately, the two committee heads, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, decided to do all the work, and they came up with a compromise.
It was pretty simple. The House Republican budget proposal was $967 billion. Senate Democrats came in with $1.058 trillion. The average of the two is about $1.012 trillion.
The Ryan-Murray bipartisan deal is for $1.012 trillion. Brilliant.
Amazingly, the House and Senate had earlier agreed on the military portion of the budget, larger than all the rest combined. But the compromise result was less for the military. Nonmilitary spending was closer to the Democratic level.
The good news is that there is a two-year deal, and Congress can get on with other major issues such as farm policy and immigration, both of which need immediate attention.
Not everybody liked the outcome. Liberal Democrats, including Maine’s Chellie Pingree, had wanted additional unemployment insurance to be included in the deal, but it wasn’t.
Even before the deal was complete, conservative groups blasted it. Following their lead, faithful tea partiers opposed the budget, voting with the liberals.
In the end, a moderate majority, including Maine’s Mike Michaud, dominated the House. It was composed of an almost equal number of members of both parties.
Certainly, some Republicans decided a compromise was worth the risk of facing tea party challengers next year.
Conservative groups attacked those favoring compromise over drastic automatic cuts. They preferred deadlock.
It matters that the people believe their government is capable of functioning, whether it cuts taxes and spending, raises them or compromises. Prolonged deadlock is dangerous to the political system.
Coming after years of stalemate, the federal budget compromise was more important for the simple fact of its existence than the details of the deal.
But what happened after the deal was announced was perhaps even more surprising than the compromise.
House Speaker John Boehner, a conservative Republican, blasted the conservative organizations that had opposed the deal. He said they were using his members for their own fund-raising purposes.
The Republican Party has come to rely heavily on these groups, which have produced massive support for the tea party candidates that gave the GOP its House majority.
But they have also used the GOP to block any action they did not like. Boehner, clinging to his speakership, has been reluctant to move unless his party could pass a bill without Democratic support.
This time, he stood up to the tea party and its conservative backers by allowing a bipartisan vote to pass the budget. It looked like he was taking back the Republican Party, still conservative, but willing to compromise.
The Republican House majority has the right to influence the policies adopted by Congress and the president. But it may be backing off from causing stalemate by preventing anything it dislikes from passing.
The renewal of a healthy political system seems to depend heavily on the GOP shifting from a “my way or the highway” approach to hammering out compromises with the Democrats.
That’s why Boehner’s move, almost a declaration of independence from outside conservative groups, may be the most important thing that happened last week.
The U.S. Senate went along with the House. The key vote was to end debate on the budget, and 67 senators, including 12 Republicans, voted in favoring of blocking a filibuster.
Among the Republicans, in addition to GOP moderates like Maine’s Susan Collins, were several true conservatives, though not tea partiers. Angus King voted with the Democrats who all voted to end debate.
This congressional course correction offers some hope that the American political system can get back on the track.