The 111th Congress closed its books with a flurry of significant action during the post-election lame duck session, including a major food safety bill; huge tax cut and unemployment benefit extension; repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy on gays and lesbians in the military; ratification of the new START treaty with Russia; and approval of medical benefits for 9/11 rescue workers. This close was consistent with a two-year legislative record whose productivity ranks with the Congresses empowered by the landslide elections of FDR and LBJ in the 1932 and 1964 respectively. The trio of mega bills enacted during 2009 and 2010—the initial economic stimulus, health reform, and financial regulation—have had or will have far-reaching effects on our economy and society. At least a dozen other significant pieces of legislation found their way into law. Among these notable accomplishments were bills on fair pay; student loans; new regulation of the credit card and tobacco industries; national service; stem cell research; land protection; and a major expansion of the FDA.
The 111th Congress and the first two years of the Obama administration, however, were beset by striking public skepticism of the value of these accomplishments, punctuated by the lowest rating of Congress by the public in polling history and the “shellacking” the president’s party took in the November midterm elections. President Obama was criticized for misplaced priorities, ideological overreach, inadequate use of the bully pulpit, and shortcomings in legislative strategy and tactics. The majority party in Congress was pilloried for its hyper-partisanship, spinelessness in the face of well-endowed interests, and inattention to the concerns of the American people.
The paradoxes of the 111th Congress were striking. The post-partisan president presided over a period of even more extreme partisan polarization. A dysfunctional Congress and political system produced a historically bountiful legislative harvest. An admirable record of legislative achievement was rewarded with devastating political setbacks. A new president renowned for his rhetorical eloquence was unable to convince the public that constructive change was on its way.
In retrospect, the enigmatic record of the last two years is understandable. The slow and painful recovery from the financial crisis and great recession, the worst since the 1930s, led many Americans to doubt the efficacy of the unprecedented governmental interventions in the economy. The unified and aggressive opposition of the Republican party in Congress, made effective by the routinization of the filibuster in the Senate, managed to kill, weaken, delay or discredit many of the president’s highest legislative priorities. A sizeable and remarkably unified Democratic party, whose ranks reached 60 in the Senate for about half of the Congress, made possible a record more impressive in its substance than its appearance.
The new Republican House majority and diminished Democratic ranks in the Senate will almost certainly render the record of the 112th a pale shadow of its predecessor. President Obama will be forced to play defense in the face of Republican efforts to disable a number of his signal achievements, including health reform and financial regulation, and to cut discretionary domestic spending severely enough to weaken his initiatives on education, energy, R&D, and infrastructure—and in a fashion that constricts the economic recovery while doing nothing constructive to deal seriously with the problems of deficits and debt. High-stakes confrontations could lead to government shutdowns and costly delays in raising the debt ceiling. Republican congressional leaders will be pushed by conservative activists and new members of Congress to stand on principle and engage more in war than diplomacy with the president and his party.
Both institutions and parties will be tested by these conflicts of policy preferences and political interests. In spite of potential agreement on issues such as education, renewable energy, private sector innovation, and tax reform, prospects for bipartisan cooperation during the 112th Congress on the major challenges facing the country are not bright. The question is whether President Obama can articulate and champion a strategy for economic growth and fiscal stabilization that sets a compelling agenda for a second term; and whether the Republicans can figure out a way both to be faithful to the strongly-held views of their core constituencies and to develop a credible program for governing that goes beyond the old nostrums of lower taxes and less government.
Congress will be more an arena for staging disagreements and arguments leading up to the 2012 elections than for enacting new law. Energy in the federal government over the next two years will perforce come from a president acting more on his own authority and initiative within the executive than is desirable. But that is a consequence of the contemporary state of politics and policymaking in America.