Worst Congress Ever? Ask Rosanna Kim

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Today’s Congress is the least productive in the nation’s history. At least, so claims a soon-to-be published paper by Rosanna Kim ‘13.

Kim’s work, which analyzes the 112th Congress using a model of legislative productivity designed by political scientist Sarah Binder, will be published later this year in The Fellows Review. Kim completed the research while working last year as a Fellow for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC).

Prior to her fellowship, Kim served as an intern on Capitol Hill and experienced first-hand the massive gridlock in Congress. While there, she continually heard people discussing legislative productivity. “Some people said there’s always dysfunction, that’s not new. Some people thought it was the worst they’d ever seen,” said Kim.

Intrigued by these claims, Kim decided to put them to the test. Binder’s model, which appears in her book Stalemate, compares each of the achievements of each Congress against hypothetical legislative agenda derived from The New York Times editorials. But Binder’s research stops with the 106th Congress, so Kim saw an opportunity to apply the model to the 112th.

She found that this Congress failed to pass almost 90% of their legislative agenda. In comparison, the second worst performing Congress failed to pass around 70% of their agenda.

“There’s this level of antagonism that people say they’ve never seen before,” said Kim. “It has led to the deterioration of Congress’ culture.”

She said people in Congress are “resorting to these really extreme forms of obstruction that are destructive to the system as a whole . . . People are obstructing the legislative process in ways that have never been done before,” and so we must “reform the process so that people can’t abuse it.”

Specifically, Kim believes the filibuster process and the process of approving Presidential appointees can be altered to help Congressional productivity.

Kim also hopes that the recent election will jumpstart productivity in Congress. Her research found that productivity improves during a President’s second term, and she is optimistic that this will be the case for the Obama administration.

Before, she said, Republicans would obstruct legislation in order to prevent President Barack Obama’s reelection. “I don’t think they can continue to do that and be accountable to their constituents anymore,” she said.

As a Presidential Fellow, Kim participated in a yearlong fellowship through CSPC. The program, which has existed for over forty years, gives Fellows the opportunity to travel to Washington twice during the year to meet and interact with policymakers.

The goal of the program is to “help young undergraduates to engage with policy makers of the day,” Director Andrew Steele said. “The unsung benefit is that we are taking what has heretofore been a very academic perspective and applying it to the contemporary policy questions.”

Each fellow is expected to complete a research paper. At the end of the year, the twenty best papers written by the Fellows are selected by a panel of academics to be included in The Fellows Review. Steele described The Fellows Review as “the first step in melding a truly academic exercise into a policy community.”

“We have more than 65 schools that attempt to enter the program. We work with each school to identify the most deserving candidates,” said Steele. He describes the students who are eventually chosen to be Fellows as “truly top notch,” and is consistently impressed by the quality of the papers they produce.

Steele is optimistic about the influence that Kim’s paper itself could have on Congress. At the CSPC, he said, “We are in constant communication with the White House and Congress.” The Fellows Review with Kim’s paper will be sent to committees on the hill as well as relevant staffers.

He tells people that “these are the future leaders of tomorrow. What they are focusing on should carry some weight.”

Potentially, Kim’s paper could provide an impetus for Congress to pass more legislation. “People have already written the bills and done the research [and] a lot of these things have made progress,” said Kim. “Now it’s a matter of reaching across the aisle and coming to an agreement.”

Photo by Abby Starr/The Daily Gazette

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