The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress proved to be productive as Democrats navigated with slim majority

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds here weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Friday. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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Funding infrastructure in all 50 states. Billions for U.S.-made semiconductors. Help for U.S. veterans exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. Aid for Ukrainian forces fighting a Russian invasion.

And of course, there is what Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) referred to as the “crowning jewel” of legislation — the sprawling Inflation Reduction Act aimed at lowering prescription drug costs, addressing climate change, raising taxes on some billion-dollar corporations and reducing the federal deficit.

Congress’s two years — which some political observers predicted could be stymied by razor-thin majorities in both houses, and heightened polarization nationwide — has, according to Democrats, been one of the most productive in recent history with passage of several bipartisan bills, such as the infrastructure measure, and significant Democratic-only legislation with far-reaching impact for millions of Americans.

President Biden called the infrastructure legislation “monumental.” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the money to subsidize the domestic manufacturing of semiconductors “profound.” And on Friday, shortly before the House passed a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters, “We look back on this session with great pride” as Democrats managed to deliver on several of Biden’s agenda items but not all.

“We put people over politics,” she said, describing the accomplishments in a campaign-style slogan: “People greater than politics.”

Republicans cast the Democratic record as marked by “reckless” and “partisan” spending, contributing to record inflation while failing to address issues such as the influx of migrants at the border or crime in the nation’s cities.

“Runaway inflation isn’t the only crisis keeping American families up at night,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week. “The last two years have seen law and order deteriorate across our country. Public safety has eroded. Violent crimes like murders and carjackings are breaking records. And our southern border has turned into a turnstile. … This is a nationwide phenomenon on Democrats’ watch.”

The flurry of legislation passed by the House, where the Democrats’ advantage has been a handful of votes, and the Senate, at 50-50 with Vice President Harris often the tiebreaking vote, comes after the relative legislative inactivity of the divided 116th Congress, which met from January 2019 to January 2021 — the final two years of Donald Trump’s term in the White House.

According to a Pew Research Center report, the 116th was “one of the least legislatively productive Congresses of the past five decades. Of the 24 Congresses we analyzed, only four passed fewer laws than the 116th — three of them within the past decade.”

The Pew analysis found that only about two-thirds of the laws enacted were substantive — “meaning they changed written law, spent money or established policy, no matter how minor” — while nearly a third were ceremonial such as renaming a post office.

As for the analysis on the 117th Congress, Pew was expected to crunch the numbers after a lame-duck session following the midterm elections.

In her final weekly news conference in Washington before the midterms, as lawmakers headed for the exits, Pelosi sought to contrast the legislation that Democrats were able to pass and get signed by Biden to what Republican congressional leaders have said they will do if they win majority control in November.

“This is an election about contrast: nationwide abortion ban, respecting freedom of choice for families. Again, kitchen-table issues like prescription drugs, lowering the cost of prescription drugs,” she said. “Republicans wanting to reverse that. The list goes on and on.”

Republicans have pointed to many of those same pieces of legislation that Democrats enacted as the reason Americans face higher prices at the supermarket, smaller paychecks, higher interest and mortgage rates, and a dropping stock market.

A “massive spending spree” led to the highest inflation in 40 years, according to a video released Friday by Senate Republicans. The video says that development, along with rising crime and large numbers of migrants crossing into the country at the southern border, “is the Biden legacy in just two years.”

Unable to pass the individual spending bills, Congress was forced to pass the short-term bill to keep the government open until Dec. 16, giving negotiators more time.

Public opinion polls show Republicans are slightly favored to win enough seats to take control of the House, according to the data site Five Thirty Eight. Democrats are slightly favored to maintain control of the Senate, according to the site.

In the Senate, Schumer navigated a razor-thin majority with a penchant for deal making, sometimes with surprising or mixed results.

In June, after a deadly shooting inside a Uvalde, Tex., elementary school, a bipartisan group of senators passed modest firearm restrictions with $15 billion in funding for mental health and school security. The legislation was a breakthrough on an emotional and polarizing issue that Congress had largely left untouched for more than 25 years.

In July, another deal was announced. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — who for months had resisted supporting Biden’s wide-ranging climate and inflation legislation, announced that he had struck a deal with Schumer to do just that. Manchin would support the Inflation Reduction Act in exchange for Schumer passing new legislation easing the federal permitting rules for pipelines and other infrastructure.

Manchin supplied his much-needed vote and Biden signed the legislation into law in August. But when Schumer attached Manchin’s permitting revision this week to a short-term spending bill to avert a government shutdown, bipartisan opposition mounted. Manchin ultimately asked for it to be withdrawn, and the spending bill was passed.

In the House, legislative activity has been determined by Pelosi, and her unique ability to whip votes among her members.

Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, funding for semiconductors and four bills this month to fund small police departments and install accountability measures were viewed as a testament to Pelosi’s ability to hold together her caucus, despite fissures along ideological and generational lines. The first female speaker of the House, Pelosi has led the Democrats for 19 years.

To close observers, the most recent session of Congress was very productive, but many rank-and-file members were displeased with how legislation was crafted and brought to the floor for votes.

For example: Legislation banning members of Congress from owning and trading individual stocks was not brought to the House floor for a vote, despite widespread support among members. A sponsor of the bill, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), blamed Pelosi, writing in a scathing statement Friday: “our bipartisan reform coalition was then subjected to repeated delay tactics, hand-waving gestures, and blatant instances of Lucy pulling the football.”

Spanberger added: “This moment marks a failure of House leadership — and it’s yet another example of why I believe that the Democratic Party needs new leaders in the halls of Capitol Hill.”

Pelosi, who has openly opposed the ban in the past, told reporters on Friday the delay was because “other members had ideas to improve upon the bill.” Referring to committee leaders — whom she appoints and essentially answer to her — Pelosi said, “I said to them, whatever you the members want to do, I fully support.”

It was the latest example of Pelosi’s push-and-pull leadership of the more than 200-member caucus, which includes nationally recognized progressive figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and more moderate members like Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) who have openly embraced some Republican economic policies as they seek to woo voters outside major coastal cities.

Pelosi has regularly brushed aside questions about whether she will continue to lead House Democrats if they do not maintain control of the chamber. Pelosi, who has been in Congress since 1987, told reporters Friday, “I’m strictly focused on winning the next election.”

But Democrats, and many Republicans, have said Pelosi is the only person who can pull that caucus together. Two of her Republican predecessors, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and later Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), retired after their leaderships were undermined by the House Freedom Caucus, the growing right-wing group of Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has strained to show he can corral votes in his caucus the way Pelosi has in hers.

“Name me when we didn’t get votes,” Hoyer told reporters this week before ticking off a list of laws. “We may not have gotten it on the day that we wanted,” but “all those pieces of legislation passed.”

Marianna Sotomayor and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.