Worst. Congress. Ever?

The NYT reports today that President Obama, looking ahead to the November elections, is planning “to step up his offensive against an unpopular Congress, concluding that he cannot pass any major legislation in 2012 because of Republican hostility toward his agenda.” Though the parallels are imprecise, Truman won a second term running against Congress in 1948, and Obama appears eager to do the same.

Indeed, gaming out the coming months, the White House believes the very best we can hope for from Congress this year is a full extension of the payroll tax break — a measure I consider very unlikely to pass — and nothing else.

It would mean the 112th Congress would wrap up later this year with exactly zero meaningful accomplishments. The question then becomes historical in nature: will this go down as the worst Congress in the history of the United States?

Americans, who are ultimately responsible for creating this mess, are already inclined to think so. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 42% of the public sees this Congress as “one of the worst ever” — the highest percentage on this particular question the poll has found since it started asking it 22 years ago. Indeed, there’s ample polling evidence to suggest that while Congress, as an institution, has never been popular, we’re currently suffering through the least popular Congress ever.

NPR had an interesting report this week, pondering “just how bad” congressional conditions have become.

In modern history, [Thomas Mann, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington] says, “there have been battles, delays, brinkmanship — but nothing quite like this.” […]

Mann acknowledges there have been worse times for Congress, but he reaches back a very long way for a comparison.

“There were a few really bruising periods in American congressional history, not only the run-up to the Civil War, but also around the War of 1812,” he says.

If we were only talking about gridlock, this Congress would merely be cover-your-eyes awful. Americans elected a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate majority, and the most right-wing Republican House majority since the dawn of the modern American party structure. That the legislative process has come to a screeching halt is not at all surprising — there is no overlap among their competing agendas, and GOP officials now look at ideas celebrated by moderate Republicans as akin to communism.

But what makes this Congress truly atrocious is the gridlock compounded by everything else: the debt-ceiling fiasco, the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt (attributed almost entirely to ridiculous Republican intransigence), the near-shutdowns, the resignations, the refusal of one party to compromise, the wholesale abandonment of institutional norms and traditions, and the procedural abuses that make the legislative process itself a pathetic joke.

We reached the point this year at which we applaud wildly when lawmakers manage to keep the government’s light on, and hope desperately that Congress resist the temptation to make national conditions worse.

Revisiting a piece from a while back, 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.

For an incumbent president, eager to avoid blame for the farce Washington has become, running against this institution seems like a fairly sensible move.