A Very Productive Congress, Despite What the Approval Ratings Say

When President Obama urged lawmakers during his State of the Union speech to work with him on "restoring the public trust," he was hardly going out on a limb. The Congress he was addressing is one of the least popular in decades. Barely a quarter of Americans approve of the job it's doing, according to the latest Gallup/USA Today poll, while 58 percent said it was below average or one of the worst ever, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey last month.

It's not hard to find reasons why Americans are down on Capitol Hill, and why President Obama's approval rating has dropped below 50 percent in many polls. A year into the 111th Congress, unemployment remains at 10 percent, and many Americans are struggling to get by--even as they've watched Congress bail out banks and coddle the same bankers now salivating over massive new bonuses. At the same time, the public has had a front-row seat to the always messy legislative process on health care and other issues, and this past year that process has been messier, more rancorous and more partisan than at any point in modern memory.

There seems to be little to endear citizens to their legislature or to the president trying to influence it. It's too bad, because even with the wrench thrown in by Republican Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, this Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president--and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.

Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive.

The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it--$288 billion--came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.

Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive. Instead, this Congress did it in one bill. Lawmakers then added to their record by expanding children's health insurance and providing stiff oversight of the TARP funds allocated by the previous Congress. Other accomplishments included a law to allow the FDA to regulate tobacco, the largest land conservation law in nearly two decades, a credit card holders' bill of rights and defense procurement reform.

The House, of course, did much more, including approving a historic cap-and-trade bill and sweeping financial regulatory changes. And both chambers passed their versions of a health-care overhaul. Financial regulation is working its way through the Senate, and even in this political environment it is on track for enactment in the first half of this year. It is likely that the package of job-creation programs the president showcased on Wednesday, most of which got through the House last year, will be signed into law early on as well.

Most of this has been accomplished without any support from Republicans in either the House or the Senate--an especially striking fact, since many of the initiatives of the New Deal and the Great Society, including Social Security and Medicare, attracted significant backing from the minority Republicans.

How did it happen? Democrats, perhaps recalling the disasters of 1994, when they failed to unite behind Bill Clinton's agenda in the face of uniform GOP opposition, came together. Obama's smoother beginning and stronger bonds with congressional leaders also helped.

But even with robust majorities, Democratic leaders deserve great credit for these achievements. Democratic ideologies stretch from the left-wing views of Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Maxine Waters in the House to the conservative approach of Ben Nelson in the Senate and Bobby Bright in the House, with every variation in between. Finding 219 votes for climate-change legislation in the House was nothing short of astonishing; getting all 60 Senate Democrats to support any version of major health-care reform, an equal feat. The White House strategy--applying pressure quietly while letting congressional leaders find ways to build coalitions--was critical.

Certainly, the quality of this legislative output is a matter of debate. In fact, some voters, including many independents, are down on Congress precisely because they don't like the accomplishments, which to them smack of too much government intervention and excessive deficits. But I suspect the broader public regards this Congress as committing sins of omission more than commission. Before the State of the Union, the stimulus was never really sold in terms of its substantive measures; it just looked like money thrown at a problem in the usual pork-barrel way. And many Americans, hunkering down in bad times, may not accept the notion of "countercyclical" economic policies, in which the government spends more just when citizens are cutting back.

Most of the specific new policies--such as energy conservation and protection for public lands--enjoy solid and broad public support. But many voters discount them simply because they were passed or proposed by unpopular lawmakers. In Massachusetts, people who enthusiastically support their state's health-care system were hostile to the very similar plan passed by Congress. Why? Because it was a product of Congress.

Well before Sen.-elect Brown's Bay State upset, it was clear that a sterling legislative record in the first half of the 111th Congress did not guarantee continuing action in 2010 or beyond. And now, Democrats' success at keeping 59 senators in line means little if they cannot find someone on the other side willing to become vote No. 60. With Republicans ebullient over the Massachusetts election, the likelihood is that they will feel vindicated in their "just say no" strategy, Obama's leadership lectures notwithstanding.

If the midterm elections in November turn out to be more like 1994, when Democrats got hammered, than 1982, when Republicans suffered a less costly blow, the GOP will probably be emboldened to double down on its opposition to everything, trying to bring the Obama presidency to its knees on the way to 2012. That would mean real gridlock in the face of a serious crisis. Given the precarious coalitions in our otherwise dysfunctional politics, we could go quickly from one of the most productive Congresses in our lifetimes to the most obstructionist.

And voters would probably like that even less.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: vgm8383/Flickr/Creative Commons

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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