The Scouting Report: Congressional Year in Review

2009 was an unusually busy year for the 111st Congress – one dominated by a tepid economic recovery and a strong push for health care reform. With a super-majority vote slowing action in the Senate and partisanship still undermining sound policy development, many experts question how effective this Congress was its first session.

On Wednesday, December 30, Thomas Mann and Politico senior editor Fred Barbash discussed Congress’s performance in 2009 and looked ahead to what might be accomplished the coming year.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 Fred Barbash-Moderator:
Good day everyone and Happy New Year. A noted congressional scholar, Tom Mann writes and speaks widely on issues related to campaigns; elections; campaign finance reform; and the effectiveness of Congress. Mann recently co-authored The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

Tom is here with us today to talk about the remarkable year in Congress and perhaps the year ahead as well.

Welcome Tom and welcome readers. I’ll turn it over to readers now. Thanks for participating. 

12:30 [Comment From Rachel:]
What’s your overall assessment of the Congress in the year just passed? 

12:33 Thomas Mann:
It is a mixed record, to be sure, with some major accomplishments – the stimulus bill and the progress on health reform the most significant – but with many issues pushed over to the second session of this Congress in 2010. But the public has little appreciation for what has been done thus far, because of economic anxiety and the sharply partisan tone of the proceedings. 

12:33 [Comment From Les:]

Has President Obama used all of his political capital on helping get health care reform passed? Will it be hard for him to get other legislation passed? 

12:36 Thomas Mann:
Political capital is not a constant. It is continuously created, spent and renewed.   Obama spent a good deal on health reform but if he succeeds, as now seems likely, this will replenish his store of political capital. It will, that is, if he and the Democrats manage to convince the public that what they have accomplished is good for them and the country. 

12:36 [Comment From Matthew:]
I’ve heard that Congress has very low approval ratings. Are people blaming Democrats, Republicans, or both?

12:38 Thomas Mann:
Congress is near record lows in public approval. That reflects both the overriding economic anxiety in the country and the intensely partisan and bitter political debate in Washington.   The public blames both parties, although they give slightly better ratings to the Democrats than to the Republicans. 

12:38 [Comment From Fred:]
At the beginning of the session, the president and his allies in congress were hoping for progress on a number of legislative priorities – health care, addressing the question of detainees at Guantanamo, financial regulation, job creation, addressing questions of poverty, deficit reduction, making appointments to federal courts, repairing the United States’ image abroad – what would you say are the signal achievements, if any, of this President and those majorities? 

12:44 Thomas Mann:
The signal achievement of the President and Democratic majority in Congress was taking a series of steps to avert a global economic and financial meltdown.   We faced the most serious economic challenge since the 1930s and appear to have avoided falling into the abyss. The stimulus, coordinated with other G-20 countries, as well as the financial rescue, were critical to this achievement. The other real achievement was with health reform, although that is not yet signed and sealed. Ironically, neither has garnered great support or appreciation from the public. The administration and Democratic majority in Congress face a difficult road ahead persuading voters that the right steps have been taken. 

12:45 [Comment From Eric:]
What are your thoughts on health care reform? Will the House and Senate be able to reconcile their bills in time for the President’s State of the Union address? 

12:49 Thomas Mann:
The odds stronger favor a resolution of health care reform by the time of the SOTU speech. The final bill will be closer to the Senate version to ensure that all 60 members of the Senate Democratic caucus remain in support of the bill.   Pelosi and the House Democrats will once again have to give more than they get in the conference. 

12:49 [Comment From Suzie:]

It seems like legislation always stalls in the Senate because of the “new” 60 vote threshold. Can anything be done? Is anything being considered to fix it? 

12:55 Thomas Mann:
In the 1960s less than 10 percent of major legislation was subject to delay tactics associated with the filibuster. Today that number is closer to 80 percent. The routinization of the filibuster, and the associated supermajority requirement to move any significant legislation in the Senate, especially during a time of deep partisan polarization, renders that institution almost dysfunctional. Under current interpretations of the Senate as a continuing body, it takes 67 votes to change the rules. The majority could challenge that interpretation and try to change cloture with a simple majority at the beginning of the next Congress but that would be very controversial and uncertain of passage, since the filibuster (and associated holds) empower individual senators as well as the minority party. It will take great public pressure to change the ways of the Senate. 

12:55 [Comment From Mark, Greenbelt, MD:]

I know you’ve done work on partisan gridlock in the Senate, and it just seems to begetting worse. What’s it going to take for that to change? Is there any hope? 

1:00 Thomas Mann:

The seeds of partisan polarization were planted decades ago and have sprouted into very hardy plants. The rough parity between the parties makes it all the more difficult to deliberate across partisan lines. The priority is to gain or retain the majority in Congress, which leads to a permanent partisan campaign. A more lopsided majority would actually encourage more cross-party negotiations in Congress but that is something only the public can produce. We emerged from a similar period in the early 20th century and I suspect we will do so again. 

1:01 [Comment From Rio:]
After all FY2010 budget were passed as a consolidated measure, instead of separate appropriation bills. Is it because of spending too much time on health care bill or structural time limit of congress?

1:03 Thomas Mann:
Neither. Democrats vowed to follow regular order and pass all of the individual appropriations bills before the start of the new fiscal year. They succeeded in passing a timely budget resolution, which had not been done in recent years, but ran into partisan delay tactics in both the House and Senate. 

1:03 [Comment From Fred:]
Are today’s congressional Republicans more united in terms of obstructing President Obama than Democrats were when they were in the minority during Republican administrations?

1:05 Thomas Mann:

Yes. Republican unity in opposition to virtually all of the President’s legislative priorities is unprecedented in modern times. Democrats are a more ideologically diverse party and often find some of their members happy to do business with Republican presidents.   

1:06 [Comment From Matthew:]

It really frustrates me that in the Senate the states all have the same amount of representation. That Wyoming gets the same number of votes as New York. It means that the interests of very few people can block the interests of many. Did the founding fathers mean it to work this way? 

1:09 Thomas Mann:
The equal representation of states in the Senate was critical to the grand compromise at the constitutional convention. The founding fathers knew how it would work but were either supportive or resigned to it as the only way of adopting a constitution. It renders the Senate (especially when combined with the filibuster) the most undemocratic of legislatures. 

1:09 [Comment From Suzie:]
How will 2010 elections affect what happens in Congress? 

1:13 Thomas Mann:
If history is any guide, Democrats will lose seats in Congress in the midterm elections. But absent a double-dip recession or continuing double-digit unemployment, they are likely to retain their majorities in both House and Senate. Next year (2010) will be at least as partisan as 2009, since Republicans believe an aggressive opposition is their ticket to big gains. The following years (2011 and 2012) will be tougher for Obama and the Democrats because of diminished majorities. 

1:13 Fred Barbash-Moderator:

Tom: In 2000, I believe, you collaborated on a wonderful series of essays called “The Permanent Campaign” about the extent to which Congress and basically all of Washington, the industry of Washington, was consumed with “point scoring” rather than governing, with some pretty unpleasant consequences. Here we are ten years later….I recently reread some of those essays…Has that phenomenon gotten more or less pronounced in your opinion? 

1:17 Thomas Mann:
It’s actually gotten worse. Legislating is increasingly campaigning for partisan control, and members are under enormous pressure to stick together to advance their common electoral interests. What was once largely a result of individual members maneuvering within Congress to advance their reelection prospects is now a collective partisan effort that pervades all of lawmaking. Sadly, the permanent campaign is alive and well. 

1:17 [Comment From Kristen:]
What will be the next big item for the president after health care reform? What other social policy issues do you foresee Congress tackling in 2010?  

1:21 Thomas Mann:
Financial regulatory reform is the next major item up after health reform but many other issues were passed on to 2010. These include raising the debt ceiling, dealing with the repeal and reinstatement of the estate tax, the highway bill, Patriot Act, unemployment benefit extension, and many other bills passed by the House but not the Senate. Immigration is a big issue that is likely to be avoided in 2010. The Democrats want to focus almost exclusively on the economy and jobs in the run-up to the midterm elections. 

1:21 [Comment From Kate:]

I’m going to ask you to put on your psychic cap for a minute. Do you think that Democrats will be able to hold on to majorities in the House and Senate? 

1:22 Thomas Mann:
Yes, almost certainly in the Senate and very likely in the House. 

1:22 [Comment From Ron:]
How would you grade Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on their respective jobs last year?

1:24 Thomas Mann:

My grade is very different than the ones given by the public. I think both Pelosi and Reid have done an excellent job dealing with tough issues in an extremely difficult political environment. Neither excels in public presentation but both are masters of their respective chambers.   A- 

1:25 [Comment From Ron:]
And, do you think Harry Reid will be able to hold on to his seat? If he loses re-election, who’s next in line? 

1:27 Thomas Mann:
Reid is the most vulnerable (along with Chris Dodd) of Democratic senators seeking reelection. He will be the underdog but a victory is by no means impossible. If he is defeated, I suspect Durbin and Schumer will contest for leader. 

1:27 [Comment From Gary:]

I think that a lot of the public frustrations with Congress has to do with the fact that banks got bailed out while everyone else suffered. Why do you think Democrats aren’t going after the banks, with some real regulation, to try and harvest populist fervor? 

1:32 Thomas Mann:
Barney Frank is doing his best and has moved serious legislation through the House. But financial interests have friends on the Democratic side of the aisle and almost unanimous support among Republicans. The Senate, with its 60 vote hurdle, makes it even more difficult. Obama favors significant reform but he is not a natural populist. 

1:32 Fred Barbash-Moderator:
Thanks to all our readers for joining us today. And thanks Tom Mann for sharing your wisdom once again.

May the year ahead be peaceful and fruitful, in that order, for all.

So long for now.