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111th Congress: Reviled but productive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2010 - WASHINGTON - It's been rebuked by public opinion polls and stung by November election results, but the 111th Congress that adjourned this week ended up with a surprisingly long list of legislative achievements -- an array of new laws that some historians compared to the Great Society years under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Capped by the Senate vote on Wednesday to ratify the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the six-week lame-duck session that ended the Congress handed the White House some clear victories this month and also gave Republicans something to crow about with the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for all income brackets.

Even so, this contentious, long-winded, "game-of-chicken" playing Congress has been called everything from "the most productive session of Congress in decades" to "a pie in the face of the American people."

Looking back over the entire two years of the 111th Congress, its signal achievements were attained with the most controversial votes. And, despite a record number of threatened filibusters and the cloture votes that sometimes stopped them, the Congress managed to effect sweeping changes that will have an on impact the vast majority of Americans. Those included:

  • Revamping the health-care system -- derided by critics as over-regulated "ObamaCare" -- and extending health insurance to 32 million Americans.
  • The new Wall Street and financial regulations, described by some consumer activists as inadequate but fought by major banks and credit card companies.
  • The last-minute extension of federal unemployment insurance programs and the Bush-era tax cuts, as well as an exemption on estate taxes for the first $5 million in inherited wealth. All three steps were blasted as deficit-busting and many liberals took aim at the estate tax and overall tax cuts as unfair gifts to the wealthy.
  • The $1.67 trillion in economic incentives that some say stopped or slowed the recession's free fall.
  • The New START treaty, which supporters hailed as the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades but conservatives derided as a Christmas gift to Russia.
  • The controversial repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevented gay soldiers from serving openly in the military. It has been praised as the biggest civil rights victory in years and criticized by opponents as a threat to the U.S. armed forces.
  • Giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to oversee tobacco products and, in a separate action this week, modernizing food-safety laws that aim to help prevent outbreaks related to tainted food.

Active Congress with historic successes -- and a few failures, too

Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on the history of the U.S. Senate and its filibusters, told the Beacon that the 111th was an active Congress. But, he said, it fell short in addressing some key issues such as climate-change and the worsening federal budget deficit. Others also fault the Congress for not dealing with immigration reform, including the DREAM Act, which failed to overcome a threatened filibuster on Saturday.

"The health-care reform package is so significant by historical standards that -- even if Congress had done virtually nothing else but pass that -- we would say it was one of the most important Congresses," Smith said Wednesday. "The reason for that is the health-care bill has the potential of going down as one of the maybe 10 most important pieces of domestic legislation in the history of the Congress."

Smith also credited Congress with approving "a variety of other laws, most of which are pretty modest," such as Wall Street reform and the tobacco regulation law. "But if you compare [those achievements] to the agenda that the president set out, at one time he would have said health care and climate change were the two major priorities. Well, that's only a 50 percent success rate because climate change legislation got nowhere."

Smith added: "There were those who would say that the long-term fiscal picture of the federal government was [an] important issue, and Congress made no progress whatsoever on that. That was in part because Democrats couldn't imagine fashioning a package that would raise taxes and cut spending and could muster the three-fifths majority that would have been necessary to get it through the Senate."

Just before he left Washington for his annual Christmas in Hawaii, President Barack Obama said he was pleased with how the 111th Congress had ended in a flurry of action during the lame-duck session. "A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock," Obama said. "But instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people. That progress is a reflection of the message that said it's still time to find common ground on challenges facing our country."

On the bipartisan START treaty ratification in the Senate earlier Wednesday, Obama said the vote showed that Republicans and Democrats stand together on national security.

He praised the vote to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" but also said he regretted that Congress did not address the long-term deficit facing the United States.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's deputy majority leader and an architect of several major legislative achievements, told the Beacon that "I think people will look back at a very productive Congress."

Durbin said "one of the most important things we did was Wall Street reform. The misdeeds on Wall Street that got us into this economic mess needed to be corrected, and we did it -- despite the resistance of the big banks and the credit card giants. It's a meaningful bill, and it gives the government new oversight to avoid such abuses in the future."

Asked her view of the most important accomplishments of the 111th Congress, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said through a spokeswoman that "emergency measures necessary to pull the economy back from the edge of disaster" were vital. She said that the stimulus package included "preventing $4 billion in cuts to the Missouri state budget, and saving the phrase 'Made in America by an American company' when it comes to auto manufacturing."

The Missouri senator also cited "important reforms to the abuses on Wall Street that caused the economic disaster"; more than "$400 billion in tax cuts targeted to the middle class, small business, and working families"; and "health-care reform, even if it still needs work."

"This is probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the '60s," Alan Brinkley, a historian at New York's Columbia University, told Bloomberg News this week. "It's all the more impressive given how polarized the Congress has been."

'Tsunami' of November election

In spite of the achievements, a series of national surveys has shown that Americans are unhappy with the departing Congress, and voters in the mid-term elections in November expressed their unhappiness by voting incumbent Democrats out of office. Nationwide, the Republicans gained 63 House seats and seven Senate seats, which will give them a strong House majority and a tougher Senate minority (53-47) in the new Congress that convenes the first week of January.

Among the incumbent Democrats who were startled by the voters' wrath was moderate U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Lexington, who said that he had been the victim of a "political tsunami" blown by Tea Party activists and other conservative critics. Another defeated Democrat, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, also expressed exasperation, saying: "What we did was work, and our reward was, 'Get out of here.' "

The Achilles heel of the 111th Congress and the first half of the Obama administration has been the lack of impact of many legislative achievements on jobs, critics said. The continuing unemployment at levels of 9.6 percent gave impetus to charges by Tea Party activists that the record levels of federal spending failed to boost jobs or investments which would create them.

Next year, Republican leaders say they want to dismantle as much as possible of Obama's signature health-care law and -- even though many of them supported a tax-cut package that will add $850 billion to the deficit over a decade -- slash federal spending by at least $100 billion a year.

But Durbin, while supporting efforts to address the federal budget deficit in a responsible way, contends that the new Congress will be unable to muster the votes to repeal the health-care reforms that many observers think were the single biggest achievement of the 111th Congress.

"Here's the problem facing Republicans who say they want to repeal health-care reform: It was scored as a positive when it came to our deficit," Durbin told the Beacon. "The Congressional Budget Office has said that what we did will reduce our deficit by $100 billion in the first 10 years and over $1 trillion in the second 10 years.

"So when any Republicans want to repeal it, they are in effect going to be faced with a fiscal challenge: They have to find another way to reduce our debt if they eliminate health-care reform. That's just on the fiscal side.

Durbin continued: "On the human side of this thing, if they are talking about eliminating the protection that people want from discrimination [in health insurance] based on pre-existing conditions, they are in for a knock-down, drag-out" fight. "That's worth fighting, and I think they will lose."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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