Stormy 111th Congress was still the most productive in decades

By David A. Fahrenthold, Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 23, 2010; A03

The House and Senate adjourned for the year on Wednesday evening, closing a two-year term that holds the odd distinction of being both historically busy and epically unpopular.

A Congress that was dominated by Democrats passed more landmark legislation than any since the era of Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society."

Congress approved an $814 billion economic stimulus, a massive health-care overhaul, and new regulations on Wall Street trading and consumer credit cards. The list grew longer during this month's frenetic lame-duck session: tax cuts, a nuclear arms treaty and a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

But the 111th Congress will also be remembered for endless filibuster threats, volcanic town hall meetings, and the rise of the tea party. All were symbols of a dissatisfaction that peaked on Nov. 2, with a Republican rout in the midterm elections.

"This is the most dysfunctional political environment that I have ever seen. But then you have to juxtapose that with [this Congress being] one of, at least, the three most productive Congresses" since 1900, said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"Making sense of all of that can make your head burst," he added.

The key to understanding this period, scholars say, is that the two parties were using radically different strategies.

Both thought they were playing the "long game" - the Republicans, by propelling themselves back into power; the Democrats, by writing their agenda into law.

On Wednesday, President Obama added another piece of that agenda into law, signing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." A few blocks away, Congress was using its last hours to approve two others: the New START nuclear arms pact with Russia, and a bill to extend health benefits to workers who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The day had the feel of a victory lap, with Democrats rejuvenated only a few weeks after a historic electoral beating.

"This has been a season of progress for the American people," Obama said in a news conference. "This has been the most productive post-election period we've had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we've had in generations."

Sen. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was equally ebullient. "This was by far the most productive Congress in American history, and the lame-duck session we're finishing was the most productive of its kind," he said.

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.' "

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