One Year Later: Is Congress Still the Broken Branch?

Executive Summary

With a flurry of legislative activity as the first session wound down, the 110th Congress passed a delayed package of appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began on October 1, a one-year fix in the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) that prevented its impact on millions of middle-class households, and the first increase in automobile fuel efficiency standards in decades. In each case, however, Democrats were unable to advance some of their key priorities, as they faced Senate filibusters and presidential vetoes. The omnibus spending bill contained no restrictions on the war in Iraq and also conformed to the president’s domestic spending cap that reduced spending in real terms. The AMT measure was shorn of offsetting tax increases sought by Democrats to comply with their party’s commitment to pay-as-you-go budgeting. The energy bill that finally emerged dropped provisions to reallocate tax subsidies from fossil fuel production to renewable energy and failed to require utilities to include a fraction of clean energy sources in their generation of electricity.

No serious student of Congress and national policymaking could be surprised by these outcomes. Deep partisan differences, narrow majorities, the routine partisan use of the Senate filibuster, and Republican George W. Bush in the White House were bound to limit what the Democratic majority could accomplish following their stunning victory in the 2006 midterm elections. But with expectations set high after years of public distemper and with the dysfunction of Congress itself a key factor in the demise of the Republican majority, it was inevitable that the new Democratic team would be held to high (though differing) standards by partisan allies and adversaries as well as by those viewing the Congress from an institutional perspective. The argument and evidence that Congress had become “the broken branch” was spelled out in a book with that title, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, and published the summer before the 2006 election. The critique that Congress had failed to fulfill its responsibilities as the first branch of government – to engage in responsible and deliberative lawmaking, to police the ethical behavior of its members, and to check and balance the other branches – was explicitly embraced by the then-Democratic minority. This report seeks to track and assess congressional performance in those terms.

How well did Congress perform under its new Democratic leadership in 2007, the first session of the 110th Congress? Most observers came to a quick and decidedly negative conclusion, one based in large part on the abysmally low ratings of the new Congress in public opinion polls. By this standard, the new majority would not get anywhere near a passing grade. Ratings of Congress were low (in the mid-30s) shortly after Democrats took control in January 2007 and trended downward thereafter, reaching a low of 18 percent in August (matching Gallup’s lowest recorded rating in March 1992) before stabilizing in the low 20s. To be sure, these ratings reflected, to some degree, a broader public discontent with the direction of the country, the war in Iraq, the state of the economy, and the performance of government more generally. But the decline in approval of Congress during 2007 was also driven by the frustration of Democrats at the inability of Congress to force a change in policy on the Iraq war and the wider public unhappiness with the pitched partisan battles and policy standoffs that characterized much of the year in Washington.

In strictly political terms, the Democratic majority appeared not to be paying a political price for the public’s low esteem of Congress as an institution. The public continued to give “Democrats in Congress” more favorable ratings than “Republicans in Congress,” rated the Democrats as substantially better than the Republicans in being able to deal with almost every pressing public issue, and preferred to maintain the current majority in power while also electing a Democratic president. But no serious member of Congress can take great comfort from this sour public mood.

There are more objective and revealing ways to judge the performance of the 110th Congress, starting with an examination of how it spent its time, what it achieved, and how the legislative process operated relative to the 109th Congress under unified Republican government. The new Congress is also compared to the 104th Congress following the 1994 election, when a new Republican majority in both houses took office under a Democratic president. A careful look at key indicators of congressional performance document that some significant and consequential changes are brewing on Capitol Hill but a genuine mending of the first branch requires a transformation in the broader political environment that only a presidential election can spark. The chart below provides measures of legislative activity, achievements and process for the first year of the four congresses that bracketed the 1994 and 2006 elections.