Inside the Worst Congress Ever
A look at some of the lowlights of Robert Draper’s new history of the House.
Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
I was halfway through Do Not Ask What Good We Do when I felt moved to email Robert Draper. Another title for his book, a history of our current House of Representatives, might be Worst Congress Ever.
Draper wrote back. “That's about 50 times pithier than Do Not Ask What Good We Do.”
To research the book, Draper embedded with new and senior House members—mostly Republicans—shortly after the 2010 election. His reporting took him from the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords through the spring 2011 passage of the government-funding continuing resolution through the soul-deadening summer of the debt-limit vote. It took about as much time as an average pregnancy for 87 new legislators to become convinced that Congress didn’t actually work for them.
The intended punch line: For the new guys, this is how Congress always looks. The rest of Draper’s title quote, uttered by a retiring House member in 1796, is asking what good the body can do “is not a fair question, in these days of faction.” Well, phew—if the legislative branch was born dysfunctional, and we’ve made it this far, America might survive the Tea Party Congress.
I said might. Here’s a quick guide to the more embarrassing or telling moments from Draper’s insta-history.
The Democrats: Anthony Weiner Division
The first juicy Draper leaks appeared in Politico and the New York Post last week. News Corp.—the bane of Anthony Weiner’s existence—got to display his corpse and take a few more stabs at it. How much more can you reveal about a man whose erect (clothed) genitals are only a Google click away? You can reveal how much his former colleagues despised him. Weiner comes off as a buffoon with zero strategic skill and 100 percent confidence in said skill.
On MSNBC one day, when his party still controlled Congress, he claimed that a health care bill minus a public option would lose 100 votes. “That number had just popped into his head,” reports Draper. “He’d uttered it without any reason to believe it was accurate. And yet it soon became a widely quoted number.” In 2011, as his profile rose, he gave his leaders advice such as “get a hundred and fifty of us and agree not to raise the debt ceiling—that’s the Republican majority’s job.” They did not listen. Before the State of the Union, he told friendly reporters that he’d “sit next to two Republicans tonight—one I like, and one I can say ‘fuck you’ to. Just for ballast.’”
The Democrats: Non-Weiner Division
Draper finds the House Democrats in a jumpy, irritated, despondent mood. They were warned by pollster Stanley Greenberg, at their first Obama-era retreat, that many of them would fall in 2010. They panicked anyway. Former members like John Tanner (Tennessee) and Glenn Nye (Virginia) wail to Draper about how Nancy Pelosi ruined them by forcing tough votes, watching them lose, then running for leader again. “Instead of running a race where it’s me against the other guy,” gripes Nye to Pelosi, “I’ll be dealing with the same ads.” Nye, defeated, gives up and joins the private sector.
The remaining Democrats find unity only when Paul Ryan introduces his budget and they know what they’re against. Rep. John Dingell is amused to learn the sexual definition of the term teabagging. “That’s disgusting,” he tells his tutor, “but it’s funny, and I’m going to keep using it.” Democrats find another kind of unity in the debt fight, as the president betrays them. “The president is the worst negotiator who has ever owned that title!” says California Rep. Dennis Cardoza to Pelosi. “I didn’t know Millard Fillmore, but… he’s the worst. He doesn’t know how to do this.”
Pelosi’s response: “Yeah, but he doesn’t think so.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.