Gail Collins: Challenge for new Congress: Don't trip over that low bar

Right now, you are probably asking yourself: Will the new Congress being sworn in this week work any better than the last one?

There's always a chance. Because, you know, it's new. Also, the bar is low because some people believe the departing 112th Congress was the worst in history because of its stupendous lack of productivity and a favorability rating that once polled lower than the idea of a communist takeover of America.

On the very last day, the Republican-led House of Representatives was in session, the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, announced it was "why the American people hate Congress." This was after Speaker John Boehner failed to bring up a bill providing aid to the victims of megastorm Sandy.

Disaster relief joined a long list of bills the 112th Congress could not get its act together to approve, along with reforming the farm subsidies and rescuing the Postal Service. Those particular pieces of legislation all were written and passed by the Senate, a group that's generally less proactive than a mummy.

Ah, the House. To be fair, it takes a lot of effort to vote to repeal Obamacare 33 times.


Our outgoing lawmakers did retrieve us from that "fiscal cliff." Although they were the ones who pushed us off in the first place. And they left the new Congress facing a debt chasm, a sequestration void and a government-stoppage bottomless pit.

So, yeah, this last one was pretty darned bad. The best argument I can make for it is that none of the outgoing members walked onto the floor and hit a colleague with a cane, as did happen in the 34th Congress. Which also was being led by President Franklin Pierce. So I would give the 34th the ribbon. But definitely the 112th is a contender.

The new Congress will have a few more Democrats in the House and Senate, which will not make any difference whatsoever. On the plus side, the proportion of political nut jobs may be a little lower. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., who once called President Barack Obama "a low-level socialist agitator," is, many recounts later, a member no more. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., was defeated by Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost both legs in Iraq and who Walsh claimed was not one of "our true heroes." Walsh was also an excellent reminder of an important rule in U.S. politics: Refrain from criticizing the other party for fiscal irresponsibility until you can work out a resolution of that child support issue.

Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has departed, too, even though his term was only half over, to answer the siren call of a seven-figure job at the helm of the Heritage Foundation.

Thanks to the blog Smart Politics, I am able to report that this is normal behavior in South Carolina: One-third of all U.S. senators from South Carolina have resigned over the course of our history. (South Carolina is also the state that gave us the guy with the cane back in 1856.) DeMint was replaced by Rep. Tim Scott, whose seat will be filled in a special election this spring. Right now, one of the possible candidates is Mark Sanford, the governor who we all remember for flying to Argentina for an assignation with his lover while his staff claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Another much-discussed potential contender is Jenny Sanford, former wife of the above. People, while you are praying for a safe, sane and peaceful new year, I want you to make a small exception and pray that Jenny and Mark Sanford run against each other.

DeMint's departure was only unusual for its abruptness. Members of Congress regularly glom onto high-paying jobs in the private sector, none of which involve the use of their skills in computer technology. The Center for Responsive Politics counts 373 former House and Senate members who are working as lobbyists.

That includes the former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who announced he would be filing his official papers on Thursday, the exact moment the legal two-year revolving door ban expires. Bennett had complained bitterly about the cooling-off period being a restraint of his constitutional rights, which left him forced to eke out a living as a consultant for the BennettGroup and a member of a high-profile Washington law firm.


When it comes to a sudden departure, though, the new titleholder has to be Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who quit Congress to become president and chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association less than a month after she was re-elected to another term. She said she had found "a new way to serve." The Center for Responsive Politics noted the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association was not only a big lobbying group but also Emerson's "biggest lifetime campaign contributor."

Still, remember, could be worse. No canes.

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