In July of last year, Norman Ornstein, a respected political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, asserted in an article that the current Congress was the worst ever.
Little did Ornstein know how bad things were about to get.
Within weeks of his article, talks to slash $4 trillion in projected deficits collapsed. House Republicans pushed the United States to the brink of default on its debt obligations. At the same time, a relatively minor dispute over labor rules at the FAA cost the government more than $300 million in revenue and furloughed 70,000 workers for two weeks.
As a result of all this, Standard & Poor's downgraded the government's debt rating while voters downgraded their view of Congress. Its approval rating, as measured by Gallup, fell to an all-time low of 11% - and then fell again, to 10%.
Worst ever? In the modern era, there's not even much room for debate. Nineteenth century Congresses might have had more corruption. And in the pre-Civil War years, members killed each other in duels with near regularity.
But those were the acts of individuals. As members of the 112th Congress prepare to adjourn as early as today so most of them can go home to campaign for re-election, they leave an unsurpassed record of failure and unfinished business.
With power split between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate, lawmakers made no discernible progress on major national problems such as exploding entitlement costs, immigration and climate change. Not only that, they ran from what in prior years would have been routine legislation.
They did not adopt a five-year farm bill or a much-needed measure to restructure the Postal Service. They refused to address the issue of how to fund needed road construction. And this year, they passed none of the 12 annual spending bills that fund government, opting instead for an catchall, six-month stopgap measure.
Saddest of all, Congress behaved in ways that did palpable harm to an already struggling economy. The lunacy over the debt ceiling in 2011 rattled markets worldwide. And the "fiscal cliff," a poison pill of tax hikes and massive spending cuts set to take effect at the end of this year, is casting a pall of uncertainty.
What's behind the dysfunction? Congress' decline into rampant partisanship has been a long developing trend, driven by money, redistricting and the growing power of heavily ideological voters. Members of both parties have grown too beholden to special interests, and to their party's base voters, who can end their careers by turning against them in primaries. These developments have acted like a centrifuge, pulling members away from the center.
But if this trend had been gradual, after the 2010 election it became abrupt and forceful. That election brought in a new type of lawmaker, one with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.
The result has not been pretty.
But there is, at least, one last chance for what Ornstein calls the "broken branch" of government to heal itself. After the election, lawmakers may return to Washington to try to steer clear of the fiscal cliff and strike a deficit deal. If members pull that off, the 112th Congress might even be able to avoid the ignominy of being at the bottom of the heap. All that's required is that they do what legislators are elected to do: make the compromises necessary to govern.