The 107th: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Under the circumstances, the First Session of the 107th Congress had phenomenal achievements. Bucking the odds, the House and Senate realized the creative tension of 50-50 election results, passed major legislation, continued work on several difficult and divisive issues, absorbed the change in Senate control in late May, and made a quick adjustment to a war status.

The Election: Both parties won in 2000. The Republicans won a tie for the presidency and retained nominal control of both houses of Congress. Al Gore won the popular vote and Democrats had a net increase of House seats and drew even with Republicans in the Senate. Many analysts called for bipartisanship. Yet conditions favored spirited partisan competition. The voters produced a 50-50 government and, with it, a creative tension that inspired leaders and members of both parties to fight hard for competing proposals—sort of what one would expect.

Legislation: Major legislation was enacted during the First Session. The count includes a sizeable tax cut, elimination of the estate tax, education reform, a use-of-force resolution, airline assistance, a broad counterterrorism package, emergency supplemental appropriations, normal trade relations with China, and airport security. Several measures were associated with the events of Sept. 11 but one house or both passed other bills that may well have been enacted save for the war on terrorism (see below). This is a record equal to, or greater than, most congresses of first-year presidencies in the postwar period.

Work on other issues: Many important and divisive issues were fully engaged during the First Session. A patients’ bill of rights and bankruptcy reform passed both houses. Campaign finance reform passed the Senate; a farm bill, trade promotion authority, an economic stimulus package, an energy program, and faith-based initiatives passed the House.

In addition, work continued on Social Security and Medicare reform, a prescription drug benefit, and immigration reform, among other issues. Alas, the confirmation process for judges (and some other appointments) is still characterized by old resentments and new acrimony.

A New Senate: For the first time since 1880, the Senate was tied. An unprecedented power-sharing agreement was worked out, thus creating a different working environment for all senators. The agreement was in force for four months when GOP Sen. James Jeffords (Vt.) left his party, became an Independent, and voted with the Democrats for organizational purposes. For the first time ever, party control changed during a session and senators had to get accustomed to another new order, as did the president and House leaders.

At War: The House, Senate and White House had only just accommodated to the dramatic change in how the Senate would do its work when terrorists struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

In an instant, intense partisan competition on Capitol Hill was transformed into a wartime bipartisan spirit. In percentage terms, Congress went from a 50-50 struggle (Jan. 3-Sept. 11) to 100-0 in support of the war effort (Sept. 11-mid-October) to 100-0 still on war-related policy and back to 50-50 on much of the domestic agenda (including certain homeland security issues). During the fall, the anthrax threat also dislocated many staffs, interfering with ordinary communication and work routines.

Looking Forward: Stalemate is once again commonly predicted for the Second Session. It could happen, as it can at any time in our system of separated powers. The challenge for leaders is to forge agreements under highly competitive political conditions. The agenda is full, many important bills are ready for floor action in one house or both, and divisive fiscal issues abound in a recession.

Yet pending elections do not typically paralyze Congress, impressions to the contrary notwithstanding. Here are the facts: Of the 22 First to Second Session comparisons, 1947-91, more pieces of major legislation were enacted in the second (the election year) than the first in 15 cases; more in the first than the second in five cases; and an even number in two (David Mayhew, Divided We Govern, 1990).

Note also that the most productive year for major legislation during the Clinton presidency was 1996, the Second Session of the contentious 104th “Gingrich” Congress (13 pieces by my count).

Legislating in the Second Session of the 107th Congress won’t be easy, but it is doable. And it will be done by lawmakers fresh from meeting the demands of a truly weird year in American politics, an annus horribilis according to Albert Eisele. Their reward? Little, if any, praise; much criticism, even ridicule. It is all part of the job as designed by the Founders. And we all have a stake in their doing it well. After all, we elected them.