The door soon will close on what is turning out to be one of the more enigmatic chapters of American government. During the past two years, Congress has been its most productive in decades, yet ultimately is reviled by the American public.
Regardless of how much longer Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decide to hold open the current lame-duck session, they cannot alter the march of time. January will come, and the 111th Congress will be history. This Congress has produced “a legislative output ‘in Great Society territory’ for its reach and importance,” according to Burdett Loomis, a congressional scholar at the University of Kansas. David Leonhardt of the New York Times remarked in May that “Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition.”
The legislative accomplishments include a nearly $1 trillion economic stimulus program, landmark healthcare reform, the most extensive regulation of the banking industry since the Great Depression, greater protection for consumers when they use credit cards, a jobs-creation measure known as the HIRE Act, an overhaul of Pentagon weapons procurement, and more recently, greater regulation of food safety as well as a repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, among a number of others.
Moreover, to enact their expansive agenda, congressional Democrats had to overcome what was usually unified and constant obstruction on the part of their Republican colleagues. Senate Republicans doubled an already-rising use of the filibuster just in the four years Democrats held their majority.
Opponents and nay-sayers, of course, will take issue with the quality, not quantity, of output. Conservatives contend many of these new laws have wrongly extended the reach of government, while many liberals argue that often they haven't gone far enough. Certainly, voters punished lawmakers at the polls in November, defeating record numbers of Democrats and handing the House of Representatives back to Republicans to control. And even more than a month after the 2010 midterms, as many as 83 percent of Americans continue to disapprove of the job Congress is doing.