The 111th Congress

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Earlier this year, congressional scholar Norm Ornstein wrote a column arguing that despite record unpopularity and minority obstinacy, the 111th Congress has been almost unprecedentedly prolific.

…this Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson.

That column was published on January 31. It’s hard to put into perspective how much has passed since then, so let’s just list some of the bold bullet-points:

-The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, legislation that will eventually require almost all Americans to carry health insurance, subsidize many of them to purchase it, outlaw coverage based on existing health problems and establish new programs at the state level where people can find and compare insurance plans, not to mention various pilot programs and other nips and tucks to existing law.

-The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which will establish a new regulatory regime to oversee the financial sector including a new wing of the Fed totally dedicated to policing consumer finance, a panel dedicating to identifying systemic risks, a set bankruptcy procedure for winding down huge institutions on the cusp of failure, a partial ban on banks’ trading with their own money and a grab bag of other tweaks.

-Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act, which will keep income taxes at current rates for two years and, in effect, act as a second stimulus; it includes a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, a temporary cut to workers’ payroll taxes, and the extension of various tax credits.

-Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 17-year-old ban on gays serving openly in the military.

-And (likely) the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would increase inspections and give the Food and Drug Administration its own recall powers in the case of contaminated produce.

Though Ornstein suspected that some of those things would come to pass, at the time he wrote his column, he was primarily basing his argument of legislative accomplishment on the happenings of 2009: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus 1.0), the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, everything that got through just the House and so on.

The reasons for Democratic legislative success over the past two years are pretty straightforward: Whether they predicted the degree to which Republicans would try to play keep away or not, Democrats controlled significant majorities in both chambers and the White House, and the leadership handled themselves fairly well. Nancy Pelosi was flawless in getting the right number of votes for big ticket items, even as it became apparent that the Senate would stall or squash much of what she passed and a brutal midterm election season for many of her more conservative members loomed. Harry Reid, probably to the detriment of his own reelection prospects, went big on a number of Democratic initiatives and engaged in the kind of unseemly horse-trading that’s necessary to nudge the outsized egos of the Senate. Republicans were masterful and mostly monolithic in their opposition at every turn, but it couldn’t stop all of the above from happening.

That’s not to say Democrats got everything they wanted. Their biggest failures (as far as enacting their own agenda goes) were probably large-scale energy policy and immigration reform. One might also place union card check and, if it’s sunk, START in the same category. Energy was probably lost when health reform was prioritized. The cost in political capital and sheer amount of air sucked up by a prolonged fight over carbon pricing in the Senate would have been too great and the GOP would have likely been able to run out the clock. The ability of the EPA to work around Congress gave the Obama administration other options and they simply moved on. Immigration reform, a politically combustible issue to begin with, became more difficult as the midterm elections approached and the controversial Arizona law, which quickly became a conservative litmus test of sorts, gave off too much heat; by summer 2010 it was too late. And then there were the various difficulties Democrats had in getting through the day to day business of the Senate with Republicans digging in their heels.

Despite whatever problems arose in getting presidential appointees confirmed, treaties ratified or the government, um, funded, the 111th has indeed done a lot. One might have had reason to challenge Ornstein’s perspective in January, but could anyone really make a strong argument against it now?