However history judges the 535 men and women in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate the past two years, one thing is certain: The 111th Congress made more law affecting more Americans since the “Great Society” legislation of the 1960s.
For the first time since President Theodore Roosevelt began the quest for a national health-care system more than 100 years ago, the Democrat-led House and Senate took the biggest step toward achieving that goal by giving 32 million Americans access to insurance. Congress rewrote the rules for Wall Street in the most comprehensive way since the Great Depression. It spent more than $1.67 trillion to revive an economy on the verge of a depression, including tax cuts for most Americans, jobs for more than 3 million, construction of roads and bridges and investment in alternative energy; ended an almost two-decade ban against openly gay men and women serving in the military, and today ratified a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
Before adjournment today, Congress approved legislation to help rescuers and clean-up crews suffering from illnesses linked to the wreckage caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The Senate approved it on a voice vote, the House by a vote of 206-60. New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, in a statement, called it a “Christmas miracle.”
For all of its ambitious achievement, the 111th Congress, which may adjourn this week, also witnessed a voter-backlash driven by a 9.6 percent unemployment rate that cost Democrats control of the House and diminished their Senate majority.
“This is probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the ‘60s,” said Alan Brinkley, a historian at New York’s Columbia University. “It’s all the more impressive given how polarized the Congress has been.”
As lawmakers wrap up the session, Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. are positioned to complete their best two years in revenue, General Motors Co. has emerged from bankruptcy with more than $23 billion repaid to the U.S. Treasury, and American International Group Inc. was able to sell $2 billion of bonds in its first offering since the company’s 2008 bailout.
The S&P 500 Index has gained 38.9 percent since Congress convened in January 2009, the biggest increase for a two-year congressional session since 1997-1998, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The S&P 500 Index reached 1254.60 yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average 11533.16.
Stimulus money created and saved jobs across the country, helping strapped state governments retain their workforces, according to government analyses. President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers said that in Ohio, for instance, the legislation created 122,000 jobs for teachers, police officers and construction workers.
“These policies carried the economy along during a period when the private sector was not engaged,’ said Ethan Harris, head of developed-markets economic research in New York at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research.
The careers of many lawmakers didn’t fare so well. Fiscally conservative Tea Party activists channeled their frustration with government spending and debt into political campaigns, most often to the benefit of Republicans challenging Democratic incumbents. In the Nov. 2 elections, Democrats lost 63 House seats, costing their party control of the chamber in next year’s Congress. In the Senate, the Democratic majority was shaved by six seats; the party will have 53 votes in next year’s session, Republicans 47.
“What we did was work, and our reward was, ‘Get out of here,’” said Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and outgoing chairwoman of the House Rules Committee. While Slaughter won re-election, five of her New York colleagues were among Democrats defeated.
Party-line votes on most of the major measures engendered ill will among Republicans and helped stall in the Senate initiatives requiring significant bipartisan support. Blocked legislation included limits on greenhouse-gas emissions that scientists blame for global warming, a bill the House passed in June 2009, a measure offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and the administration’s attempts to curb growing income inequality with tax increases for higher earners.
Those are unlikely to be tackled next year, when the House’s Republican majority will turn its attention to dismantling the health-care law and cutting domestic government spending by $100 billion.
Congress this year was also unable to approve a single one of the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the government.
“I think it was a disaster,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, of the congressional session.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democratic leader, saw it differently: “This whole two-year session has been dramatic in terms of its achievement and the changes that it’s brought about.”
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the accomplishments of Congress in remarks to reporters today. “We’re very, very proud of the work that was done by this Congress,” the California Democrat said. “We came here to do a job and we got much of it done.”
The policies embraced by the 111th Congress suggested the end of an era in Washington, as Democrats pushed to reverse three decades of deregulation that began under President Ronald Reagan, say economists.
“We’ve been in a trend toward an attempt to deregulate the economy,” said Harris. “You’re turning back the clock to an earlier period.”
The scope of regulations approved since Obama took office has made business hesitant to expand and hire new workers, he said. “Business is overwhelmed,” said Harris.
3.3 Million Jobs
Congress scored its first big accomplishment weeks after Obama’s inauguration with passage in late February 2009 of a $814 billion stimulus bill. It has created or saved 3.3 million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while also steering more funds to road construction, broadband technologies and renewable energy ventures.
The health-care legislation approved last March provided insurers including WellPoint Inc. of Indianapolis and drug-makers such as Pfizer Inc. of New York millions of new customers by requiring that all Americans have health insurance. These industries, as well as medical device-makers, will also face billions of dollars in new fees, and hospitals face a host of new standards designed to help curb soaring costs.
The health-care law is facing legal challenges, with the insurance provision a key dispute.
An overhaul of the rules governing the financial services industry, approved in July, aims to prevent a repeat of an economic collapse that led to the failures of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Washington Mutual Inc. It included $4 billion in aid to help thousands of unemployed property owners avoid foreclosure, while the program has fallen short of its goals.
Congress also passed laws to help ensure pay equity by enabling women to pursue lawsuits claiming they were underpaid, and to empower the federal Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry, which includes restrictions on cigarette marketing.
Additionally, lawmakers expanded state programs for health insurance for children, and they confirmed two Supreme Court justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor became the first Latino to serve on the court, and the pair increased to three the number of women among the nine justices.
Following the November elections in which voters handed Democrats what Obama termed a “shellacking,” Congress in a lame-duck session made significant additions to its accomplishment list. Lawmakers approved an $858 billion measure that continues for two years Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels, extends aid for 13 months to the long-term unemployed, provides estate tax relief and cuts by two percentage points worker payroll taxes during 2011.
Congress in its last days also voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on military service by openly gay men and women. Yesterday it cleared the biggest food-safety overhaul in more than 70 years, giving the FDA more enforcement power. And the Senate ratification today, 71-26, of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty gives Obama a key foreign-policy victory.
“What we’ve been able to do in the lame duck has been not just bipartisan by a fingernail, but bipartisan on a broad basis,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.
From a market perspective, Congress’s biggest accomplishment was probably the tax cuts, with the estate tax breaks the “whipped cream, fudge and cherry on top,” said Ethan Siegal, president of the Washington Exchange.
Investors responded to the health-care and financial-services measures largely negatively, with health care viewed as “big government gone nuts,” he said.
Democrats say it will take years before the public recognizes their achievements. Many of the measures that passed were designed to forestall a bleaker recession, an argument that’s little comfort to many Americans as the nation’s unemployment rate has remained at 9.5 percent or higher for more than a year.
“It was hard to tell people that we accomplished anything important when their lives are so difficult,” said Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and outgoing chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee.
The Tea Party movement, which worked to elect lawmakers advocating a new era of fiscal authority, has already begun to shift the direction of Congress.
Shortly after the election, Senate and House Republicans announced a voluntary ban on earmarks, the funding for pet projects added to bills by lawmakers. The incoming House Republican leadership has promised to turn the focus of the Appropriations Committee from funding government to identifying spending cuts.
Many of those efforts will likely fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate. And the party split between the two chambers is likely to bring the record of congressional productivity to an abrupt end in January.
“There’s just nothing that’s going to be accomplished,” said Brinkley. “What really is disturbing is that this is a period in which there is a lot to be done.”