This year, Congress had an abysmally low approval rating, with just 13 percent of the public approving of its work. Yet, the 111th Congress achieved more than any session of that body in 40 years.
The 111th Congress, which adjourned on Dec. 22, began with the still controversial stimulus bill and left Washington after ratifying a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. In between, there was a lot of political jockeying and rancor, but much was accomplished, especially in the lame duck session after the 2010 elections.
“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 the Bloomberg news service. “It’s all the more impressive given how polarized the Congress has been.”
Buoyed by the election of President Barack Obama, the 111th Congress had large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. With independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, Democrats had a filibusterproof 60 seats in the Senate until the death of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. In a vote that set the tone for 2010, Republican Scott Brown was elected to replace him, weakening Democratic control of the Senate.
Senate Republicans became relentless in blocking legislation, requiring 60 votes to move almost every issue forward. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe often provided the margin to get to 60.
Maine’s senators, along with then-Republican Arlen Specter, were the only GOP senators to vote for the stimulus package in early 2009. Most economists credit the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with savings jobs and preventing the recession from being worse, but it is still vilified by many conservatives today.
The growth and lax oversight of big banks was blamed for the recession. A Wall Street reform package will help ensure banks don’t get “too big to fail” and will better protect consumers. New protections were also enacted for credit card holders.
The most controversial legislation passed by the 111th Congress is the Affordable Care Act, which was passed using a procedural move that avoided the need for 60 votes in the Senate. After decades of talk, Democrats enacted legislation that will increase insurance coverage, while lowering its cost. The measure was immediately attacked by Republican critics, and many state attorneys general have filed lawsuits to stop the reforms. Republicans, who will control the House of Representatives in the next session, have pledged to repeal the act. This isn’t likely because taking away consumer protections that have already gone into effect — such as barring companies from canceling policies when people get sick and denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions — ultimately won’t be popular with voters.
Health care coverage for children also was expanded, and new requirements for school lunches will spur the purchase of more healthful and locally grown foods. For the first time in decades, federal oversight of food production has been improved. Funding was increased for veterans and student aid for colleges. Alzheimer’s research and prevention gained support and hurdles were removed for those seeking to right pay discrimination.
Then, in its waning days, Congress repealed the discriminatory and unworkable Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and ratified the New START agreement, to reduce and monitor nuclear arms in the U.S. and Russia.
The 111th Congress also had many failures. It did not pass a single bill to fund government agencies based on priorities and the availability of federal funds, instead relying on continuing resolutions that simply continue current funding levels.
Nor did Congress make progress on a comprehensive energy policy or greenhouse gas reduction.
Despite much talk about the federal deficit, Congress did little to rein it in — passage of pay-as-you-go spending limits has been meaningless in the past.
Extending tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration, for example, will continue to add to the debt. However, the bill also extended unemployment benefits and many of the tax cuts help low- and middle-income families.
Of local importance, lawmakers failed to pass legislation to keep heavy trucks on the interstates of Maine and Vermont, returning them to back roads, which costs more and is more dangerous.
Now that the 111th Congress has adjourned, the public hectoring continues. Yet, time will show that the work done by this group of lawmakers is of lasting importance.