The worst Congress ever?

Never mind that the public elected a new House Republican majority to stop the Obama agenda. The trope of a “do nothing” Congress is red meat for Americans who seem to have a collective feeling that lawmakers can’t or won’t do anything to breathe life into the economy. It’s also a prophecy that seems almost certain to be fulfilled: With a debt-limit increase and the fiscal 2012 spending bills already in hand, the president doesn’t need anything from Congress — except the political spectacle of failing to act — before Election Day in November…

And they certainly didn’t do much last year, either, statistically speaking. The 112th Congress has had few real accomplishments on the legislative front: An overhaul of patent laws, three trade agreements, a contentious payroll tax cut package and the annual defense authorization law headline a paltry list of 80 laws, 20 percent of which either named a federal building or appointed a trustee to a federally appointed board. It’s the fewest number of laws created by the first session of a Congress since at least 1959.

What about the partisanship and acrimony? Members of Congress roundly say it’s not as bad as it was during the run-up to the Civil War, when abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten unconscious by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina as Sumner delivered a Senate floor speech, ridiculing the South and denouncing compromises that helped perpetuate slavery. But that’s a pretty low bar…

Every decade, partisan mapmakers across the country draw new district lines that tend to cluster Republican voters in one set of districts and Democrats in another set of districts. The result: Lawmakers have to toe the party line in Washington to avoid primary challenges — which, in the vast majority of districts, are more perilous than general election contests. Rather than proving to voters that they can work with the other side, lawmakers have to prove that no one fights harder than they do.