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Stormy 111th Congress was still the most productive in decades
It could be the Democrats' last victory lap for a while. In January, the next Congress will have a Republican majority in the House, including many new members beholden to the fiercely conservative tea party movement.
Their mission is sharply different from that of the current Congress. Its work was primarily in creating things: new institutions, new regulations, new oversight. The new Republican agenda tends more toward subtracting: cutting programs, slashing spending, and repealing health-care reform and other new laws.
"Congress and the administration simply failed to listen to the American people," Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker-to-be, said in a statement Wednesday. "Time and time again, [the American people] yelled 'stop,' but the folks running Washington barreled ahead with a job-killing agenda our nation didn't want or need."
This session began in early 2009, with the debate over a massive stimulus package that combined tax cuts and new spending, trying to save jobs and put unemployed Americans back to work. The late-night vote foreshadowed battles to come: It mainly broke down along party lines, with just three Republican senators breaking ranks to vote yes.
That was followed by the long battle over health care. When that vast package of changes passed the House in March, it did so with no Republicans voting for it - and with 34 Democrats voting no.
A few weeks later, Congress approved a massive financial regulation bill, which created a new consumer-protection watchdog agency within the federal reserve, and gave the government power to dismantle failing financial firms.
Taken together, those three bills added up to 4,000 pages of new law. Historians said these achievements didn't have quite the sweep of the first Congress under Franklin D. Roosevelt - which passed a raft of legislation to fight the Great Depression. Neither did they equal the work of the Congress under Johnson, when it passed landmark voting rights legislation, and created Medicare and Medicaid.
But, scholars said, this Congress's work was still among the most ambitious in memory.
"This is probably the greatest liberal accomplishment since - arguably since Lyndon Johnson," under whom Congress passed a raft of environmental legislation, said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University.
Lichtman said that the bills all followed a guiding liberal principle: "Government has a responsibility for social welfare, and to regulate the abuses of business."
In the past, other ambitious Congresses had managed to turn success on Capitol Hill into success at the ballot box, trading on their legislative achievements to keep or expand a majority.
This was not one of those Congresses.
The Republicans gained 63 seats amid widespread unhappiness with Capitol Hill: This month, a Gallup poll found 83 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, the highest number in the 30-plus years of its poll.
"Democrats are exultant about the accomplishments of the past two years but depressed by the disconnect we've had with the American voters," said Democratic strategist Steve Murphy. "Everything that has been done in terms of domestic policy was done with the goal of improving the lives of middle-class Americans - and middle-class Americans rose up in revolt of the Democratic Congress."
Trying to explain this electoral defeat, some observers have said it had nothing to do with Congress: In a bad economy, those in power get blamed.
Republicans, on the other hand, said the election was about a Congress out of control - and straying from Americans' most basic priorities.
"The American people were frustrated because the one thing they wanted to remain focused on was growing the economy and creating jobs," said Republican pollster David Winston. "All of a sudden, they heard from Washington a variety of other topics. . . . The public said, 'Enough.' "