What a Difference an Election Makes

By Edward M. Kennedy
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rome wasn't built in a day, but if this new Congress had been its architect, it might have been. It has been just 66 days since Congress changed hands, and already the results are remarkable. In my 45 years in Congress, I have never seen the Senate turn so rapidly from stalemate toward real progress. While the daily media focus may be on our internal debates or the next presidential election, the biggest news of 2007 is that the election mattered and that the Democrats have already delivered for the American people.

The biggest reason is that the election replaced a do-nothing Congress with the kind of Congress that our Founding Fathers intended: an equal branch of government that takes seriously its responsibility to exercise oversight over the executive branch and to legislate in the public interest. The progress of the past few months only underscores how much our country has needed an active and alert Congress. The examples are numerous.

Last week, the Senate and the House held hearings on the inexcusable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. We have a lot of work to do to keep faith with our wounded soldiers. But it took a Democratic Congress to uncover what had been concealed by the do-nothing Republican Congress -- that this administration has been warehousing instead of rehabilitating wounded soldiers who return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hearings and the threat of legislation by the new Congress have forced the mighty banking industry to admit that credit card fees and interest rates are far too high and to pledge to end some of its worst practices. By taking the problems of ordinary Americans seriously, the Democratic Congress will save consumers tens of millions of dollars in credit card fees and interest. We're working toward similar reform of the student loan system. Our hearings have already paved the way for change by demonstrating that this system is serving the interests of banks while failing our students.

Just last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee provided a forum for U.S. attorneys who were fired for political reasons. The Justice Department initially pretended these firings were based on performance, and it threatened the U.S. attorneys who tried to set the record straight. Hearings called by the Democratic Congress were the difference between uncovering the truth and sweeping it under the rug. The testimony of these Bush appointees made clear that the Justice Department had been caught playing partisan politics -- and then trying to cover its tracks. Because Congress exposed the truth, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reversed course and agreed that the president should seek Senate approval for any new U.S. attorneys.

The balance of powers set forth in the Constitution is starting to work again. By far the strongest message from the election is that Americans want a change in Iraq. It is a tremendous challenge to get any administration -- especially one as stubborn as this one -- to change course during wartime. But Congress is now performing its constitutional role as a check on the executive. The administration is being asked the hard questions and being held accountable for its answers.

We have also demanded accountability from ourselves by requiring that each member of Congress go on the record as supporting or opposing President Bush's escalation of our involvement in Iraq's civil war. The fact that a majority of both houses of Congress voted against the surge is a powerful statement to the president and to the country. More important, there is broad consensus on the Democratic side of the aisle that our combat troops should be redeployed by 2008. We will work to make that goal a reality. And let's not forget that the very first accomplishment of the new Congress was to force the president to find a new defense secretary.

While we have much further to go, we are finally moving in the right direction globally. The administration has finally heeded the call of many of us in Congress and agreed to talk to Iran and Syria. Congress has also prodded the State Department to turn its attention to the growing Iraqi refugee crisis. Before our hearings on the issue, the United States had largely ignored the plight of 2 million Iraqis, many of whom were chased from their homes for assisting U.S. forces. Finally, the fact that a Democratic Congress will not rubber-stamp a decision to invade Iran is already serving as an important -- and constitutionally mandated -- check on the president.

This short list doesn't do justice to our partners in progress, the House of Representatives led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The House has not only joined the Senate in vigorous oversight but has passed a Sept. 11 bill that finally takes the steps to make us safe, a prescription drug bill that will lower the cost of medicine and a minimum-wage increase that will help millions get the raises they deserve. The list goes on and on. And we've only just begun.

The writer is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company