Brand new Congress, same four problems

Story highlights

  • LZ Granderson: Four leaders who brought Congress low in public esteem remain in place
  • New Congress began with action by GOP majority along partisan lines

LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow, and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Picture this: August 2014 and House Speaker John Boehner is on the campaign trail in Iowa stomping for then-congressional hopeful Mariannette Miller-Meeks. He's in front of a small, yet attentive crowd engaged in one of his favorite pastimes -- bashing President Barack Obama.

In his talk, he criticized the President's response to Russia's takeover of Crimea, asking the group "Does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States?" He then answers his own question."No! Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds!"
LZ Granderson
Boehner even pantomimed what the proposed punch would look like, much to the delight of his audience.
    It was a theatrical showing. And a dishonest one.
    When Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, a U.S. ally, in 2008, Bush did not come close to punching Putin or then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the nose -- literally or diplomatically. In fact, the country's response to the invasion — which did not include military action -- was so weak one Georgian soldier fighting for his country's sovereignty told The New York Times that "America and the European Union are spitting on us."
    But the small band of voters in that room likely did not remember or ever even knew the truth.
    This is the mouthpiece House Republicans chose to speak on their behalf -- for a third time.
    And things will be different between Congress and the White House how?
    Congress back, expectations low
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    Much is said about Obama's low-to mid-40% job approval numbers -- but have you seen Congress?
    In six of the past seven years, its job approval average has been less than 20%, according to Gallup. Before 2008, only twice in the 40 years Gallup has measured Congress' approval has it been that low. In short, Boehner, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell have been the leaders, presiding over the worst stretch of job approval numbers this branch of government has had since 1974.
    Pandering, misrepresenting facts, massaging the truth -- these are all part of the game of politics. Boehner and his contemporaries are neither unique nor inherently bad people for playing by these distasteful rules. Yet there's something profoundly deflating about seeing the same leaders of what was routinely referred to as "the worst Congress in history" all back to reprise their staring roles in 2015 (though McConnell has swapped jobs with Reid as Democrats lost control of the Senate to the GOP in the midterms).
    "Now We Can Get Congress Going" read the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed Boehner co-penned with McConnell, as if someone else was stopping votes in the House.
    On the other side, Reid ignored more than 700 House-passed bills during the 110th Congress alone -- and that was when Pelosi was speaker. He was replaced by McConnell, who said "there's only one Democrat who counts: the President," in the same interview in which he talked about reaching across the aisle.
    Yeah, I can see a lot of bipartisanship happening now. Barely a week in, and Republicans were threatening to defund parts of the department that helps protect the border to punish a president they say is not serious about protecting the border. Also in the hopper: The Keystone Pipeline, a project that studies found is neither the job creator nor the environment destroyer each opposing party claims it to be. This is why for all the hoopla about changes in Congress, 60% of Americans believe nothing will change.
    "Long term incumbency leads to politicians who seem to care more about what is best for their career than what is best for their country," Sen. Rand Paul wrote in 2009, advocating for term limits.
    "Some pundits like to remark that we already have term limits, they're called 'elections.' This glib response ignores the fact that incumbent U.S. senators start each election cycle with an average of $8 million dollars in the bank. The average U.S. representative starts with over $1 million in the bank."
    In 1994, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed a series of reforms designed to circulate more members through leadership jobs. Among those changes: term limits for the job of speaker of the House. Unfortunately, it was overturned by Republicans in 2003. Worse yet, Gingrich failed to get the votes needed to impose term limits on members of Congress. That, too, was thwarted by some of his Republican brethren.
    "If this were a trial, I'd call as my first witnesses the Founding Fathers, who directly and unanimously rejected term limits," Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Illinois, said in a debate on the floor at the time.
    I won't bore you with the list of things the Founding Fathers "unanimously rejected" that we consider common sense today. I'll just point out the irony of Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, owning hundreds of slaves -- and slowly walk away.
    In any case, Congress appears to be stuck with Boehner and company, which means the country is. (All these four need to do to stay in power is to get re-elected in districts where they have strong support and then retain the votes of their colleagues in Congress. And as we saw in the aftermath of Boehner's re-election, dissenters will be punished.)
    Hopefully, the leaders of Congress will keep their promise and actually put the American people's needs ahead of their own pursuit of power. Or maybe enough voters will notice the correlation between the "worst Congress in history" and the quartet that's been leading it for nearly a decade.
    Call me a cynic, but I'm not holding my breath for either.
    Although it's worth noting that the only district in Iowa that Republicans lost in November was the one in which Boehner was seen telling his whopper about Bush punching Putin in the nose.
    Maybe those folks were paying attention after all.