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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
ALL 100 SENATORS
Dem Senator Calls North Korea Briefing “Sobering”
10 hours ago
THE DETAILS
SAYS CLINTON ADMINISTRATION BASICALLY GOT IT RIGHT
Pai Announces Plans to Roll Back Net Neutrality
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Even as he acknowledged the importance of an open internet, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday set his telecom agency on a course to scrap the tough, broad net neutrality protections imposed by the Obama administration. During a major speech in Washington, D.C., Pai outlined the need for a total revision of existing federal rules that seek to prevent companies like AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon from blocking or slowing down web content, including the movie or music offerings from their competitors." Separately, Pai told Reason's Nick Gillespie that the Clinton Administration "basically got it right when it came to digital infrastructure. We were not living in a digital dystopia in the years leading up to 2015."

Source:
LOFTY GOALS
White House Proposes New Tax Plan
12 hours ago
BREAKING

The White House on Wednesday laid out its plan for tax reform, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying it would be "the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country." The tax code would be broken down into just three tax brackets, with the highest personal income tax rate cut from 39.6 percent to 35 percent. The plan would also slash the tax rate on corporations and small businesses from 35 percent to 15 percent. "The White House plan is a set of principles with few details, but it’s designed to be the starting point of a major push to urge Congress to pass a comprehensive tax reform package this year," said National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Source:
EMERGING BUDGET FRAMEWORK?
Dems Proposes Obamacare-for-Defense Deal
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"An emerging government funding deal would see Democrats agree to $15 billion in additional military funding in exchange for the GOP agreeing to fund healthcare subsidies, according to two congressional officials briefed on the talks. Facing a Friday deadline to pass a spending bill and avert a shutdown, Democrats are willing to go halfway to President Trump’s initial request of $30 billion in supplemental military funding."

Source:
WHITE HOUSE BLOCKING DOC REQUEST
Michael Flynn Remains A Russian-Sized Problem
1 days ago
BREAKING

The Michael Flynn story is not going away for the White House as it tries to refocus its attention. The White House has denied requests from the House Oversight Committee for information and documents regarding payments that the former national security adviser received from Russian state television station RT and Russian firms. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz and ranking member Elijah Cummings also said that Flynn failed to report these payments on his security clearance application. White House legislative director Marc Short argued that the documents requested are either not in the possession of the White House or contain sensitive information he believes is not applicable to the committee's stated investigation.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login