The 111th Congress returned to Washington this week with a record of legislative achievement that rivals President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Voters may show their thanks by throwing lawmakers out of office.
Encouraged by Barack Obama, a new president from their own party, the Democrat-led House of Representatives and Senate provided health-care coverage for another 32 million Americans, offering coverage for 95 percent of U.S. residents. Their $814 billion stimulus bill created or saved 3.3 million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
New laws rescued the financial industry from the worst collapse since the Great Depression as well as thousands of property owners from foreclosure with $4 billion of aid. And, for the first time, consumers have federal protection from opaque lending practices that caused the real estate crash.
Obama achieved his goals with a narrower majority than Johnson had in Congress, and Obama also has failed to convince a majority of voters that Congress has done enough to make life better for them. Polls show Republican gains in Nov. 2 congressional elections to the extent that the Democrats may lose their House and Senate majorities.
“Nothing the Democrats could possibly do is likely to alter the basic course of this election,” said David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “The things that are mainly affecting voters Democrats can’t do anything about.”
The scope of the laws enacted is comparable to congressional action in the 1960s that created Medicare and approved landmark civil-rights laws, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. Democrats did it with smaller majorities than when Congress enacted Johnson’s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
“Historically, it’s going to rank as one of the most productive Congresses in recent time, comparable to LBJ’s first two years, and maybe even Franklin Roosevelt’s time” when Social Security was created, said Thurber, editor of a 2004 book “The Battle for Congress: Consultants, Candidates and Voters.”
Congress also passed laws to help ensure pay equity, enabling women to pursue lawsuits claiming they were underpaid, and allowed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry, resulting in restrictions on cigarette marketing. Lawmakers also expanded state programs for children’s health insurance, offering coverage for an additional 3.5 million kids.
Still, Obama’s party has found little public support, as only 33 percent of Americans surveyed by The Gallup Poll said they approve of the job Democrats are doing in Congress. Obama’s approval rating is below 50 percent, and polls show a lack of public confidence in the health plan, financial overhaul and economic stimulus.
This year, Democrats are hamstrung. Democrats’ accomplishments have been overshadowed by voters’ concerns about the economy, soaring deficits and a 9.6 percent U.S. unemployment rate. Much of what was enacted won’t be felt for a long time, and Obama also has failed to create a convincing narrative of the accomplishments for the public, analysts say.
The House and Senate, which returned to Washington this week after a month’s summer break, plan to finish pre-election work by early October. Then comes a final campaign debate.
Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona said Democrats haven’t gained politically because Obama and Congress have gone “far beyond where the American people are in terms of expansion of government,” spending money and increasing debt. “This is a major sea change in policy, and the American people have reacted very badly to it,” he said.
With health-care, Democrats “knew we had an historic opportunity to be there with Social Security, Medicare,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a July 14 interview. Republican attacks against her are “a sign of how effective we have been; they want to stop that,” she said.
Democrats drove through Obama’s agenda with a far narrower margin of control than in Johnson’s time, when the party held the Senate 68-32 and the House by a 295-140 margin. In 1935, when Social Security was enacted, Democrats held 69 Senate seats and Republicans 25. Democrats controlled the House, 322 to 103.
“I don’t think there is any Congress that comes close” in accomplishments except those “back in the LBJ time,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University professor whose books about Congress include “Friend and Foe in the U.S. Senate” and “House and Senate.”
Price to Pay
“Any great innovations always, invariably come with a political price,” Baker said. “Unless the payoff is immediate and goes to all segments of the electorate, you pay a price for it.”
Today, Democrats control 59 of 100 seats in the Senate and 255 of the 435 House seats. This year’s health-care overhaul passed without a single Republican vote.
It is “pretty remarkable” for the Democratic-controlled Congress “to have gotten as much as they have gotten done without any Republican support,” said Ronald W. Peters, a political scientist at University of Oklahoma. Yet the party can’t look to Johnson’s time for any sense of inspiration, he said. After their productivity in the mid-1960s, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate in 1966.
Foremost among the new laws is the health-care legislation that represents the biggest redesign of the U.S. medical system since Medicare’s passage in 1965. It would force changes such as prohibiting the denial of insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions. The share of the legal non-elderly population with insurance would rise to 94 percent from 83 percent.
Congress enacted new financial regulations and a consumer protection agency intended to avert another worldwide freeze of credit like the one in 2008 that required a $700-billion federal bailout of Wall Street after the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history when Lehman Brothers failed. The plan’s $4 billion in federal foreclosure aid includes cash advances for emergency mortgage-relief payments for unemployed homeowners.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded $7 billion to state and local governments to buy, renovate and sell foreclosed homes and offer down-payment and closing aid to buyers. Of that money, $3 billion came from the Wall Street overhaul or the economic stimulus plan. The agency said Sept. 3 that almost 100,000 homes were affected by the program.
The financial law creates a consumer financial protection bureau with independent authority to write and enforce rules for banks, sets up a council of regulators to police firms for threats to the economic system, and creates a mechanism to wind down failing firms whose collapse would roil markets.
Lawmakers offered protections for personal finances, too, with a credit-card measure that prohibits abrupt interest rate increases, requires cardholder consent before charging fees for transactions that exceed credit limits and makes issuers apply payments to balances with the highest interest rates first.
Congress expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover more than 11 million uninsured kids, up from 7.5 million in 2008, and made it easier for women to win pay-discrimination lawsuits. That law allows employees to pursue claims they are being underpaid because of discrimination that occurred years earlier, undoing a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred such lawsuits.
After getting authority from Congress to regulate the cigarette industry, the FDA in March banned cigarette makers from distributing branded merchandise such as T-shirts and sponsoring sporting or entertainment events.
Economy Still Problem
None of this has translated into broad political support for the president’s party, analysts say.
“What they haven’t done is fix the economy,” Rohde said. “The only way the voters can express that they are unhappy is to vote against the party in power.”
Democrats haven’t put “the right sales pitch” on their accomplishments, Peters said. Unlike Johnson, who told a “grand narrative” of his program, Obama hasn’t “tied together all the various things the Democrats have done,” he said.
Obama’s approval rating is about 46 percent, the same as President Bill Clinton’s just before the 1994 midterm election that gave Republicans majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Republicans won the House that year after campaigning on a “Contract With America” that spelled out a 10-point legislative agenda. While the new Republican-controlled House passed nine of the measures, most, including a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, failed to get Senate support.
This year Democrats are hamstrung by the economy, Thurber said, and also they’ve approved legislation that’s complex and hard to explain to voters.
“It’s very hard to communicate through the noise of a bad economy,” Thurber said.
Democrats have found little traction in labeling Republicans as pro-Wall Street for opposing the financial overhaul. The measure so far has failed to rally public support. A Bloomberg National Poll in July found that almost four out of five Americans said they have just a little or no confidence that the legislation will prevent or significantly soften a future crisis.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said two-thirds of Americans surveyed July 15-18 said the economic stimulus increased the federal deficit. Most didn’t think it improved roads and bridges or prevented government layoffs.
A July 12 Pew survey showed that 47 percent disapproved of the health-care law, compared with 35 percent who approved.
In the remaining two months before the midterm elections, the president’s proposals to boost the economy include $50 billion for transportation projects and more tax breaks for businesses to encourage hiring and capital investment.
Obama is pushing Congress to extend middle-income tax cuts approved under President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003 while rejecting Republican calls to also extend cuts for the wealthiest Americans. At a Sept. 11 news conference, he called the higher-income cuts “a bad idea.”
His ability to win that fight and others is in doubt amid division in his own party and Republican opposition.
Some Democrats say they oppose allowing any of the tax cuts to expire at the end of this year with the economy still lagging. Some support a temporary two-year extension of all the cuts, an idea proposed by Obama’s former budget director, Peter Orszag, and supported by Republicans including House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
‘Right Thing To Do’
The Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said most of Congress’s achievements, such as the Wall Street overhaul, haven’t yet had a “direct personal impact” on voters.
“I think it’s the right thing to do for America but it isn’t the kind of thing I expect a great vote of gratitude in November because we passed it,” he said in an interview.
Durbin said he has “no regrets” on any of the votes Democrats took to pass Obama’s legislative agenda. “But those achievements were yesterday and elections are about tomorrow.”