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.
Yet that doesn’t fully explain things. On the most macro level, 51 percent of Americans think the intended policies of the new Republican leadership will move the country in the wrong direction. Even after delivering Democrats a “shellacking,” to use President Obama’s term for it, Americans are evenly divided as to whether Democratic policies would be good for the nation. Even diving deeper into what was arguably the most contentious achievement of the current Congress, healthcare reform, 57 percent want to either leave the law as is (18 percent) or change it so it does more to change the health care system (39 percent). On the issue of Wall Street reform, the public says that it supports that new law by a strong 58-39 margin. That same poll asked whether the public more generally approves or disapproves of “government regulation of business.” The public said it did, on a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. This hardly amounts to a full repudiation of Democratic policies. Further, even as Obama himself continues to enjoy lukewarm approval numbers at best, the president is still more trusted than his GOP rivals to solve the nation’s problems and help the beleaguered middle class.
One answer to the conundrum of the 111th Congress could be the fact that the American people quite simply are profoundly frustrated and not quite sure where to turn, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising given an environment of sharp rhetoric and deep anxiety over persistently high unemployment and a sluggish U.S. economy.
The coming 112th Congress likely won’t match its predecessor in legislative output. But perhaps the debates it will engender will at least help clarify what the public wants to support.