Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Historic 111th...and the ? 112th

With the passage of Dodd-Frank, we can say again that the current Congress is going to go down in the books as amazingly productive, one of the the truly historic Congresses.  Granted, all that took was health care reform: when you work on something for sixty years (give or take a few decades), getting it done is going to be a big deal.  Regardless, there's now another one for Obama's (and Reid's, and Pelosi's) trophy case. 

I've talked about this before, but it's important to remember that most of the bills that have passed, this one included, isn't just a "bill" in the way that you probably think of these things if you, say, have done a model Congress simulation in school.  What passed today, just like health care reform and like the stimulus bill last year, was omnibus legislation: one big bill made up of a whole bunch of other bills, some big, some small.  Matt Ygelsias has a good rundown on some of the major things, but he's not trying to be comprehensive.  In other words, there were a number of things that, had they been brought up on their own, would have been major bills, with significant fights.  In fact, my guess is that someone could easily do a year's worth of weekly pieces about the various "minor" provisions in these bills that will have significant effects on people's lives, whether it's Race to the Top in the stimulus bill, coverage for contraceptives in the ACA, or ratings agency regulation in Dodd-Frank.  In other words, I don't think anyone, really, has a good sense of exactly how much this Congress got done. 

Of course, we also don't know how the accomplishments of this Congress will look in, say, fifty years.  I'm pretty confident that health care reform (taken as a whole) will be thought of as a pretty big deal.  Beyond that, we don't know...will Dodd-Frank be seen as successful, or as nibbling around the edges?  Will historians talk about the stimulus package that prevented a Depression, or the failure of Congress to follow up with a major jobs bill?  Will liberals, fifty years from now, complain about how nothing ever gets done in Congress and why can't the Democrats get their act together like they used to back in 2009-2010?  Or will they focus more, as many do now, on the ones that got away? 

I'm going to tentatively disagree with Kevin Drum and others, however, who believe that this is the end of the line for Democratic legislative accomplishments.  I think it's just too early to tell.  I'll remind everyone, also, that Republican Congresses passed S-CHIP, and raised the minimum wage, while Bill Clinton was president.  If that's the case, then it seems at least plausible that a divided Congress next year (or one held by the Democrats with smaller majorities) could pass some of the items on the Obama agenda.  After the last two years, everyone is used to a Congress in which the people who matter are Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins.  It may turn out that in the next Congress, the key players will be somewhat to the right of that group...but still a good bit to the left of the purely rejectionist crowd.  It's hard to predict, going in, the results, especially before seeing where the votes are.  Complete gridlock is certainly one solid possibility, but so is a productive Congress passing somewhat more conservative legislation.  Or a productive Congress in which left and right cut deals to move items important to each. 

It is, by the way, entirely strange that the 111th Congress has done everything that it's done and still can't manage to do fairly routine things such as extending unemployment benefits and passing a budget.  Still, I wouldn't entirely rule out the possibility of some sort of energy/climate bill passing in the current Congress.  So far, no one is getting rich betting against the 111th Congress on the big things.


  1. Jonathan--

    Would there really be a significant difference between this Congress and one with, say, 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans (just a random number, not a prediction by any means)? Especially now that health care and finreg have passed.

    Generally, it looks like conservative Democrats are going to be replaced by moderate Republicans. I know that's a brash generalization, and Sharon Angle is by no means a moderate Republican, but as far as most Democrats are concerned, people like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln are relatively useless when it comes to putting forward a progressive legislative agenda (healthcare being an exception). A big climate bill looks extremely unlikely, but it seems like we'd need 70 Democrats to pass something that would meaningfully dent carbon emissions. I guess I just don't feel the overwhelming despair other Democrats feel about our November prospects. The jobs picture sucks, but at least Obama can spend the next Congressional term pumping bills into the committees and forcing Republicans to vote them down.

  2. Education seems to be the most obvious area for bipartisanship in 2011 -- no one seems very happy with NCLB.

    Deficit reduction could also been an area of agreement; given that Republicans won't accept a tax increase, perhaps they would agree to a cut in defense spending, balanced by some cuts on the domestic side. I doubt that it will happen, but it could.

    I think in almost every case, a Republican replacing a Democrat would entail a move to the right.

    Blanche Lincoln received an 80 ADA score in 2008; John Boozman received a 25.

    Evan Bayh received a 70; Dan Coats regularly scored 0 when he was in the Senate.

    Byron Dorgan is a pretty liberal Democrat for one representing a conservative state; John Hoeven seems like a standard business-oriented Great Plains Republican.

    Arlen Specter has been a party-line Democrat since his switch, and I suspect Joe Sestak would vote the same way; Pat Toomey was a very conservative House Republican, although he might moderate a bit in the Senate.

    Mike Castle replacing Ted Kaufman actually wouldn't represent a big change, given that Castle has been just about the most liberal Republican in the House.

  3. I agree, I think the 111th congress still has a good chance of passing an energy bill this session.

    Interestingly, as I wrote on my blog, I think the great achievements of this congress will result in an odd type of campaigning - both for congressman and for Obama in 2012. They are going to be touting their legislative achievements, but because the legislation is back-loaded, they won't be able to provide a lot of solid evidence that those policies have been successful.

  4. "Will liberals, fifty years from now, complain about how nothing ever gets done in Congress and why can't the Democrats get their act together like they used to back in 2009-2010?"

    Fifty years? They'll be saying that inside of FIVE years.


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