Need to Know: House

Go Big and Go Home

One of the most legislatively successful sessions of Congress in modern history ends in historic losses for Democrats.

Susan Davis
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Susan Davis
Dec. 16, 2010, 12:23 p.m.

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.

“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.

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