In its waning days, the 111th Congress has taken on a Dickensian quality for Democrats. They presided over one of the most consequential sessions in modern history. They aimed high and hit their targets more often than not"”then voters sent them packing. Especially for Democrats in the House, it has been the best of times and the worst of times.
Recall the heady first months of 2009, when President Obama was cruising on celestial approval ratings; there was talk of a permanent Democratic majority, and lawmakers were eyeing bold legislative action, including a public health insurance option and a climate-change bill to cap carbon emissions.
Cut to today. Democrats are struggling to defend their legislative victories. One of Nancy Pelosi's last acts as House speaker will be to oversee a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, a huge defeat for Democrats who had pledged to repeal them. Deeply divided by the White House deal on taxes, the Democratic majority in the House saw congressional approval ratings drop to historic lows in the final days of a Congress it controlled. According to polling from Gallup this week, barely one in eight Americans, 13 percent, approve of the way Congress is doing its job.
Click to see a scorecard of the 111th Congress
"The 111th Congress was an extraordinarily productive Congress, a transformational Congress whose mark will be felt in years to come, in health care, in economic recovery, in the financial sector," said Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar of Minnesota, who lost his bid for reelection in one of the party's surprise defeats on November 2. "History will look better on this Congress in the next two to three years than the last election did."
House Democrats, largely unbowed by their repudiation at the polls, believe that their defeat was linked to two factors: a weak economy and their own inability to articulate their successes. It was not, they insist, a rejection of their legislative product. "It was an extraordinarily productive Congress, but it's hard to tell someone who doesn't have a job or is losing his home, "˜Look at all the great stuff we did,' " said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California. "What I think caused our defeat was the economy, and there wasn't anything anyone could say about our accomplishments or progress or anything else when people were hurting so badly."
The breadth of Democrats' legislative achievement is notable: from economic stimulus, health care reform, and financial-regulatory overhaul to laws to bolster volunteer service and end gender discrimination in pay. In addition, the House moved major legislation that failed to overcome the 60-vote threshold that governs the Senate's ability to act, including laws to curb carbon emissions, reform food-safety standards, and tighten campaign-finance disclosure laws.
For Republicans, poised to take control of the House and with a six-seat gain in the Senate, the tale of the 111th Congress is a cautionary one about how sweeping legislative action can have severe electoral consequences, even if lawmakers believe they are doing the right thing. Pelosi understood the electoral risks. "We're not here just to self-perpetuate our service in Congress," she said earlier this year. That was prescient. Many of those who voted for the health care bill will not be back next year.
It is a lesson for the GOP to keep in mind as party leaders mull sweeping action of their own to defund the health care overhaul and reform Social Security, immigration laws, and the federal tax code. "Historic defeats and major accomplishments are not always contradictory," said outgoing House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina, who lost his reelection bid. There are historic parallels. The accomplishments of the 111th Congress have been compared to the Great Society programs of the 89th Congress and the Johnson administration. Democrats did badly in both subsequent elections"”losing 47 House seats in 1966 and 63 this year.
"When you make the major decisions that are going to result in fundamental change of the federal government and the lives of the American people, it's going to be painful, it's going to be misunderstood, and history will have to show that it was the right thing to do," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. "But in the meantime, you pay a political price, and that's what you see here."
One factor that nearly all Democrats seem to agree on is that they lost the message war against a Republican Party that marched in near-lockstep opposition to their agenda. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, the incoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a former mayor of Kansas City, says there is no better example of this failure than the health care bill. Democrats not only failed to sell it to the American public but they also seemed deaf to voters' economic concerns as debate over the legislation raged for months on Capitol Hill. "Everybody here talked about health care, and I went home and everyone there talked about jobs," Cleaver said. "I think we make a terrible mistake if we deny there was a disconnect." Spratt echoed the sentiment: "We failed to communicate with our constituencies on health care."
A stronger message effort may go hand in hand with a more combative approach to the GOP. The lessons of the past two years go both ways. Waxman, although critical of Republicans' efforts, acknowledges their political success. "I think there are lessons to learn that are fairly negative ones"”that if you are the "˜Party of No' and take the opportunity to scare people, you can be successful, and that is a sad commentary," he said. Sad perhaps, but a point Democrats will ponder as they plan their defense against GOP efforts to dismantle their legislative victories.