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The Speaker's Grand Illusion

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, December 27, 2007

After one year of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, public approval ratings for Congress have sunk below their level when Republicans were still in control. A Post poll this month put the approval score at 32 percent, the disapproval at 60.

In the last such survey during Republican control, congressional approval was 36 percent. So what are the Democrats to make of that? They could be using this interregnum before the start of their second year to evaluate their strategy and improve their standing. But if Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House and leader of their new majority, is to be believed, they are, instead, going to brag about their achievements.

In a year-end "fact sheet," her office proclaimed that "the Democratic-led House is listening to the American people and providing the New Direction the people voted for in November. The House has passed a wide range of measures to make America safer, restore the American dream and restore accountability. We are proud of the progress made this session and recognize that more needs to be done."

While surveys by The Post and other news organizations show that the public believes little or nothing of value has been accomplished in a year of bitter partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill, Pelosi claims that "the House has had a remarkable level of achievement over the first year, passing 130 key measures -- with nearly 70 percent passing with significant bipartisan support."

That figure is achieved by setting the bar conveniently low -- measuring as bipartisan any issue in which even 50 House Republicans broke ranks to vote with the Democrats. Thus, a party-line vote in which Democrats supported but most Republicans opposed criminal penalties for price-gouging on gasoline was converted, in Pelosi's accounting, into a "bipartisan" vote because it was backed by 56 Republicans.

There is more sleight of hand in her figures. Among the "key measures" counted in the news release are voice votes to protect infants from unsafe cribs and high chairs, and votes to require drain covers in pools and spas. Such wins bulk up the statistics. Many other "victories" credited to the House were later undone by the Senate, including all the restrictions on the deployment of troops in Iraq. And on 46 of the measures passed by the House, more than one-third of the total, the notation is added, "The president has threatened to veto," or has already vetoed, the bill.

One would think that this high level of institutional warfare would be of concern to the Democrats. But there is no suggestion in this recital that any adjustment to the nation's priorities may be required. If Pelosi is to be believed, the Democrats will keep challenging the Bush veto strategy for the remaining 12 months of his term -- and leave it up to him to make any compromises.

An honest assessment of the year would credit the Democrats with some achievements. They passed an overdue increase in the minimum wage and wrote some useful ethics legislation. They finally took the first steps to increase the pressure on Detroit to improve auto mileage efficiency.

But much of the year's political energy was squandered on futile efforts to micromanage the strategy in Iraq, and in the end, the Democrats yielded every point to the president. That left their presidential candidates arguing for measures in Iraq that have limited relevance to events on the ground -- a potential weak point in the coming election.

The major Democratic presidential hopefuls all have their political careers rooted in Congress, and the vulnerabilities of that Congress will in time come home to roost with them. Today, Democrats take some comfort from the fact that their approval ratings in Congress look marginally better than the Republicans'. In the most recent Post poll, Democrats are at 40 percent approval; Republicans, at 32 percent. But more disapprove than approve of both parties.

That is another reason it behooves the Democrats to get real about their own record on Capitol Hill. It needs improvement. And in less than a year, the voters will deliver their own verdict.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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