Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Stealth 111th

Jonathan Chait is gobsmacked at the news that three-fifths of Democrats apparently think the 111th Congress hasn't produced much:
This is just nuts. This is, objectively, a very productive Congress. Now, right-wingers think it's been productive at dystopian, freedom-destroying confiscations of wealth that remind them of an Ayn Rand novel. But clearly Congress is doing a lot. The fact that Democrats think Congress has accomplished little is evidence of some kind of chronic depressive tendency.
I'd say a couple of things, beyond noting that Chait is of course correct that it's been an unusually productive Congress.  One is that if there's any "chronic depressive tendency" going on, the place to look is at opinion leaders, not the rank-and-file; the latter are almost certainly just telling pollsters what they've been hearing from whoever it is they listen to, whether that's Maddow and Olbermann, or the nonpartisan media, or Barack Obama and other Democratic pols.

The second is that, as usual, I'd look more to the incentives everyone has to try to explain this.  So: for most Democratic activists, it has made sense to focus on pushing Congress to do the things right at the edge of what was plausible to do, or perhaps a bit beyond that.  After all, if liberals didn't push Congress to pass a public option, and immigration reform, and climate/energy, and DADT repeal -- and the ACA and the other things that Congress did pass -- then Congress wasn't going to do those things.  The result is that much of what they advocate for doesn't happen (advocates who only try to get the easy things passed aren't doing their causes much good, right?). 

Moreover, it makes a lot of sense for liberals to focus on GOP obstruction and Senate reform, which means again emphasizing what didn't happen.  You're not going to get pressure on Democratic Senators to change Senate rules if most liberal constituencies are happy with what's passed, rather than frustrated by what didn't pass.  One other thing...ask a liberal, and she's going to tell you that George W. Bush got whatever he wanted from Congress.  That wasn't true, but it's certainly possible that liberals significantly overestimated how productive the Bush-era Congresses were.  And the question at hand here is how much this Congress passed compared to other Congresses.

What about the incentives for the president?  Here, I think things are more mixed.  Obama should want Democrats to believe he (and the Congress) have been successful.  But he also wants to keep people motivated, and that requires having an agenda that will pass only with successful future elections, and you can only have an agenda if you emphasize the things that haven't passed.  Obama also has an incentive to emphasize GOP obstruction, because it means that bad stuff might be their fault, not his.    Besides, I would expect even partisan Dems to discount claims of historic effectiveness coming from the WH or Congressional leadership.  Still, I think one could certainly blame the White House for not getting the word out.

That leaves the press corps.  Why have they missed the story that this has been a historically productive Congress?  I can think of a few reasons.  One is that the fact of the upcoming lame duck session has meant that no one is writing "how was the 111th Congress" pieces, and so they aren't noticing.  Another is that they, too, are listening to Democrats complain about obstruction instead of bragging about all they've done, and so they aren't being prompted to think of this as a productive Congress.  Yet another reason is the Democratic strategy of bundling lots of bills together (especially in the stimulus, the ACA, and the banking bill), meaning that raw statistics of bills passed, or even a sense of how frequent signing ceremonies have been, would tend to undervalue what they've done.

Mostly, though, for the regular press coverage, it's probably just because many reporters have no sense of history at all, and don't feel the need to consult experts with a good grasp of history, and don't feel the need to set anything in the context of history. 

(See also Greg Sargent, who flagged the numbers, and has his own perfectly plausible speculation about it).


  1. This is so simple. We think they haven't done much because we think it is Congress' job to accomplish things, not to whine about why they can't. That's how our employers treat us. We have the possibly mistaken notion that Congress works for us ...

  2. Great points.

    Part of the problem is that muddled moderate Democrats are advising Obama not to bother energizing the base since this could turn off moderate voters. This is nonsense.

    The way to energize the base is talk up accomplishments and the ongoing fight -- against Republican obstructionism -- to improve Americans' lives. That's a message that will connect with "moderate" voters as well.

    As I discuss in my blog, many moderate voters consider themselves "moderates" because they are more interested in accomplishments than ideology. If they are convinced that Obama has accomplished a lot, and is fighting the good fight, they largely won't care whether the solutions are labeled liberal or conservative.

    Obama and the Democrats should shout out their accomplishments, not cower in the corner.

  3. Congress has done a lot, but has it done enough? We think not.
    The times demand even more, especially on energy policy and human rights. Democrats have larger majorities than are likely to happen again for decades, but we punted on energy and public health care option. These were critical for economic and political success.

  4. One other thing...ask a liberal, and she's going to tell you that George W. Bush got whatever he wanted from Congress.

    The first time I recall hearing this meme was from Jon Stewart.

    It seems odd that it co-exists with so much liberal exultation over the failure of SS reform.

  5. >The first time I recall hearing this meme was from Jon Stewart.

    Could you point me to the episode (if it is an episode) where he says this?

    For that matter, can anyone show me examples of prominent liberals stating that Bush got whatever he wanted from Congress?

  6. Top reasons most Democrats think the 111th Congress hasn't accomplished much:

    1) Unemployment has hovered near 10% for over a year, with no end in sight.

    2) There are over 300 bills that passed the House that haven't even gotten to the Senate floor---not because a majority of Senators wouldn't vote for them but because a minority of Senators won't allow them to come up for debate. (Oversimplifying I know, but nonetheless....)

    3) Everything Jonathan said.

    P.S. I think part of the frustration for liberals is that congressional Democrats accepted Bush's legitimacy as president and were willing to cut deals with him, e.g., Kennedy on education reform, Medicare expansion, homeland security after 9/11, authorization for Iraq.

    By contrast, with the exception of Specter, Collins and Snowe on the Recovery Act, there's not been a Republican faction willing to cut deals to pass legislation.

  7. I don't think liberals are wrong in thinking that Bush got whatever he wanted from Congress. He had 2 major defeats: SocSec and immigration.
    I wrote a paper for MPSA on Bush's veto threats. By my count, he issued 129 veto threats and 95 of those yielded capitulation by Congress, and 16 ended in a compromise. If I drop those where internal congressional politics might have done Bush's work for him, it's 110 threats, with 76 capitulations and 16 compromises. Whether his success rate was 86% or 84%, it's still a VERY high rate.

  8. i think this blog focuses too much on how many things have passed (QUANTITY), and not on the QUALITY of those bills. My problem as a liberal is that the bills have all been watered down conservative crap! they have not even tried to push any actual liberal policies, or approached anything from the left. they started at the middle-right and ended up right every time.

    during the Bush years, the bills congress passed were substantial and far reaching. Think Patriot Act. the implications of that are amazing. also for the FISA bill. same goes for the military cauterization bill. the Bush tax cuts. these were all game-changing bills. i have not seen anything remotely 'game-changing' passed in the 111th. ACA and FINREG are business as usual, with a few tweaks.

    someone please tell me i am wrong.

  9. Kylopod:

    Could you point me to the episode (if it is an episode) where he says this?

    It was just before ACA passed, when the noise of the moment was over whether 'reconciliation' could properly be used. Stewart was talking about that when he asked rhetorically how Bush was able to get his agenda through Congress.

    If you can point me to an archive that goes back that far I will try to find the episode. I went to the Daily Show website, and all I could find was the last month.

  10. Matt,

    And he went 2/3 on his SCOTUS nominations, which isn't very good. For me, the question comes down to how one scores the tax cuts...IMO, that's not so much Congress doing what GWB wants as it is Congress doing what it wants, and GWB agreeing. I'd give him NCLB, Medicare, and Iraq as things that Congress probably didn't want very much, but not much else.

  11. I didn't follow the link to the poll so I don't know how the question was asked, and I don't as a rule give much credence to polls anyway. But one factor in the "not accomplished much" disillusionment is the content of these bills. So yeah we got "healthcare reform" but really it was a pretty sucky piece of legislation that reformed very little and further entrenched our flawed system. And without debating why that happened or if that was the best we could hope for, the fact remains: it was a pretty crappy "accomplishment," given the expectations going into this presidency.

    Ditto the failure of any kind of carbon emission regulations/cap-and-trade, Wall Street reform, banking reform, closing GITMO, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. Maybe stuff has changed on this front but it falls far short of peoples' expectations, and when you're polling people about what the Democrats have accomplished, what you're looking at is what's been done versus what peoples' expectations were.

  12. Jon,
    For my money, the veto threats data are convincing. On issues where Congress COULD give Bush what he wanted, the GOP bent over backwards to do so, including doing things that they didn't want to do personally. Only when Bush wanted things that were anathema or electoral poison did they push back.
    And I choose not to count Miers against his record. Debatable call, certainly. But Congress didn't reject Miers: the entire thinking population of the United States did. I don't think we should lower our measure of Bush's power for Bush's stupidity. I think Miers is like saying a high jumper can't jump high because they didn't clear the 90 foot bar.

  13. Found it.

    It's January 18, 2010. It was earlier than I thought. Stewart was actually commenting on Obama rushing to Massachusetts in a last-ditch effort to save Coakley. (I may have been remembering a later episode in which Stewart repeated the point.)

    'Let me see if I have this straight. You need to replace perhaps the most beloved liberal in the history of the Senate, with a candidate that believes Curt Schilling is a Yankee fan, because if this lady loses, the health care reform bill - that the beloved late senator considered his legacy - will die. And the reason it will die - let's continue. The reason it will die, is because if Coakley loses, Democrats will only then have an eighteen vote majority in the Senate - which is more than George W. Bush ever had in the Senate, when he did whatever the f*** he wanted to do.'

  14. On quantity v. quality, you have to start somewhere. Liberals have been trying to pass some sort of universally applicable healthcare reform for decades and have failed spectacularly every time. The healthcare legislation that passed has always been limited to specific groups like seniors or children whose parents lack insurance. The ACA is the first healthcare bill that passed that applies to everyone and it will be improved latter. Trying for a single-payer system or even a strong public option would only lead to massive defeat like every other attempt at universal healthcare in the past, i.e. no reform at all.

    Meanwhile, yes the Wall Street reform could have been better but it was a good, solid law.

    So that is three very large bills and a lot of smaller bills. Trying to pass large bills on every topic of importance is an impossibility, especially when dealing with this level of opposition to and disunion within the Democratic Party.

  15. Stewart was simply engaging in hyperbole for the purposes of setting up a comic punchline. It does not suggest, to my mind, that he or any other prominent liberal believes this was literally true.

  16. @Kylopod

    Did you watch the clip?

    Social Security reform was the signature issue of Bush's second term, and comprehensive immigration reform was a pretty big deal too. It's hard for me to see the statement as an exaggeration of the truth, rather than just false. Bush won some and lost some, just like any other president. And in his first term the popularity boost from 9/11 probably helped.

    Of course, Stewart is a comedian. Just as with Rush Limbaugh, you can dismiss anything he says as a joke if you like.

  17. I watched the clip when it first came out ten months ago. But I assumed that since you quoted the relevant section in full, I didn't have to view it again. I have now done so, and I don't see that it made any difference.

    >Social Security reform was the signature issue of Bush's second term, and comprehensive immigration reform was a pretty big deal too.

    But it was his second term when his presidency fell apart. During his first term, he was remarkably effective at getting legislation passed, including highly unpopular things like tax cuts for the rich. Obama is less than two years into his first term and has experienced huge trouble getting even popular proposals like Wall Street reform through a Senate controlled by far more members of his party than Bush ever had.

    >Of course, Stewart is a comedian. Just as with Rush Limbaugh, you can dismiss anything he says as a joke if you like.

    As a matter of fact, many of the things Limbaugh says are deliberate jokes. Stupid, petulant jokes, but still jokes. And he makes plenty use of sarcasm and hyperbole. When he says, "There's one other business where the customer's always wrong, and that's the media. If you ever call them to complain about whatever they do, they say yessir, yessir, three bags full, they hang up and say you're too stupid to know how they're doing what they're doing."--is he really intending this statement to be taken literally? I don't think so.

    But it's safe to say that talk radio is less officially comedic than, say, Comedy friggin' Central. Look at Mike Medved, for goodness sake. Has the man ever cracked a joke in his life? Yet he's guest-hosted Limbaugh's program before. If it was a comedy show, that would be like Arianna Huffington guest-hosting The Daily Show.

  18. come on Jonathan.
    I'd give him NCLB, Medicare, and Iraq as things that Congress probably didn't want very much, but not much else.

    First of all, I'd say the Iraq War and all that entailed, a preemptive vanity war for whatever psychological reasons, is a Big Fucking Deal as far as "getting what he wants." I'd also say that a massive, unfunded expansion of a socialist-commie-conspiracy-to-destroy-Murka-asweknowit is a BFD as well. And I disagree that "Congress" didn't want No Child Left Behind. After all, Kennedy was exceedingly proud of it.

    And you forget completely about the whole Military Commissions Act, which the bushies DESPERATELY wanted, as well as Protect America Act, immunity for the telecoms -- Congress did Bush's bidding to ram those items through. Congress also WANTED a lot of things -- renewal and/or expansion of SCHIP, extension of unemployment for example -- that DIDN'T pass because the bushies didn't want it.

    There are, I'm sure, a number of other bushie wants that went through, these examples are just what I happen to remember offhand. There were a number of bushie "didn't wants" that didn't pass because the bushies didn't want them. Please rethink your sweeping statement in view of actual history of the Bush years.

    I'd like to read Dr. Jarvis' paper he mentioned above. Is it online?

  19. Question(s) for the political scientists. One of the things the Republicans are running on is repeal of the HCR.
    It is mentioned that with the veto and filibuster ... ain't happening.

    But I have seen recent talk about utilizing the Section V power of the States to amend the constitution via a Convention.

    Now, supposedly 27 states currently have applied for a convention on a Balanced Budget Amendment ( Actually that was the closest the process ever came in the early 80s with 32 states ).

    If they gain the 7 more to reach the 34 required ... and a convention is held ...
    a ) Can they consider other amendments or only Balanced Budget ones?
    b ) Other than scheduling it and deciding what the ratification process is ( State convention or State legislature ) what role does the Congress have?
    c ) What would be the construction of the states representatives ( i.e. would it essentially be their process for a State Ratification convention? ) -- and what would be the process ( i.e. rules. One state one vote or multiple votes per state? As well as basically parlimentary rules ). And who decides the make-up and rules? Congress? Or the states at the convention?
    d ) a follow up to b. If the States as a group ( yes the bar is high 34 to initiate and 38 to ratify ) can change the rules by amending the Constitution. And do so without the consent of the Federal Government ... yet the Federal Government MUST gain the States consent via ratification ... uhm doesn't that kind of back door the Supremacy Clause?
    e ) I am pretty sure on this one ... if they reach 34. Congress MUST call a convention. And no not schedule it in 2110. But worth asking.
    f ) Do they even NEED to say what the convention is for?
    i.e. instead of saying "... to consider a Balanced Budget Amendment." Could the instead say " ... to consider amending the Constitution." From my reading of that clause, it doesn't look like Congress needs to know what is being considered ... and if a) is answered yes, it is rather moot anyways because once they start they can do whatever they want.

  20. James,

    Don't know about Matt's paper (Matt? Still reading this thread?).

    As far as the rest...I certainly do agree that Iraq was a very big deal, and Medicare D as well. NCLB? Dems wanted the stuff they tried to get; I don't think many Republicans wanted it.

    On the rest of it...I think Bush's record with Congress on detention/torture etc. was mixed. A lot of the stuff they did was (do I have to say IMO?) done without any authorization at all. Then when it was exposed, or knocked down by the courts, Congress got involved, and Bush/Cheney won some and lost some. When they lost, they then typically tried to go ahead and do what they wanted regardless, but that's not about getting stuff through Congress; it's about, at least IMO, following the law.

    Now, the more complicated thing is really figuring out "what Congress wanted" on some of these issues. Still, I'd at least hesitantly say that the last couple of years suggests, to me, that a lot of Republicans just really want an exec branch/presidency that can torture, detain people indefinitely w/out trials, etc., etc.


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