‘Worst. Congress. Ever.’

I don’t think it’s online anymore, but Matt Taibbi had a fantastic cover story for Rolling Stone in October 2006 about the Republican-led Congress, shortly before Democrats won both chambers.

“These were the years,” Taibbi wrote, “when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula — a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable.”

The article included one of my favorite all-time quotes: Jonathan Turley told Taibbi, “The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a failed experiment.”

It seemed literally impossible at the time, but five years later, we appear to have found a Congress that’s even worse. Norm Ornstein, a respected congressional scholar, argued this week, “Americans have complained for years that their government is broken. This time they’re right.”

Dana Carvey had a character during his years on Saturday Night Live who was a crotchety old man complaining about how much better everything was “in my day,” the imagined halcyon times of his past. After almost 42 years immersed in the politics of Congress, I have to check myself regularly to avoid falling into the same trap. When I came to Washington in 1969, for example, the city was riven with division and antagonism over the Vietnam War, which segued into the impeachment of a president, followed by many other difficult and contentious moments.

In this case, though, Carvey’s old man would be right: The hard reality is that for all their rancor, those times were more functional, or at least considerably less dysfunctional, than what we face with Congress today.

Ornstein wrote this last week, before Congress set itself on a path to crash the American economy on purpose.

His piece is well worth reading, and shines an important light on structural impediments that prevent the legislative branch from functioning as it should.

But from where I sit, Ornstein goes a little too easy on congressional Republicans. Congress is still capable of functioning as an institution. Indeed, over 2009 and 2010, we saw our share of frustrating legislative disputes, but an enormous amount of successful policymaking was completed. Had the Senate been able to operate by majority rule — the way it used to — the 111th Congress would have been even more impressive.

The problem with the 112th isn’t a structural impediment; it’s the result of a radicalized Republican Party that has no use for compromise, evidence, or reason. We have a congressional GOP abandoning all institutional norms, pushing extremist policies, rejecting their own ideas if they enjoy Democratic support, and engaging in tactics that were once thought unthinkable from policymakers who put the nation’s needs first.

Is this the “Worst. Congress. Ever.” as the headline on Ornstein’s piece argues? After six months on the job, that seems extremely likely. Indeed, if this Congress deliberately causes a global economic catastrophe, the competition for the worst Congress ever will end quite quickly.

But the public needs to understand that Congress, at an institutional level, doesn’t bear all of the blame. The stark raving mad Republican Party does.

Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, Trent Lott, Bill Frist … who wouldn’t trade the current crop to get those guys back? I’d do it in a heartbeat.

To borrow from Turley, I’ve never been more inclined to wonder if our democracy is a failed experiment than I am now.