After one year in power in Congress, Dems don't get much done

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 19, 2007 

US NEWS STATEUNION 24 MCT

Congress in joint session for the State of the Union, 2007.

GEORGE BRIDGES — George Bridges / MCT

WASHINGTON — Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in a stunning 2006 election victory by vowing to wind down the Iraq war, marginalize President Bush, enact their agenda and revive bipartisanship.

But after a year in power, their "mission accomplished" list is thin.

They're constrained by three factors:

  • A majority that's too slim to break party-line filibusters in the Senate or override presidential vetoes.
  • Republican lawmakers' willingness to stick by the White House most of the time.
  • And divisions among themselves over how far to go in opposing the war or changing how deals get done on Capitol Hill.

"Once the Democrats do something about the war that's effective and not what Bush wants, then they become responsible for the consequences," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California in San Diego. "And since it's still hard to see good consequences coming out of the war, it's very risky for them."

Disapproval of congressional Democrats runs nearly as high as disapproval of congressional Republicans, 64 percent to 68 percent in a USA Today-Gallup Poll released this week. But those surveyed said they'd back a generic Democrat running for Congress over a Republican, 53 percent to 40 percent.

Democrats may find success in next year's elections, Jacobson said, by arguing that they can deliver more if voters give them a few more seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate — and one in the White House. "They can say, 'We've been blocked by the White House, blocked by the Republicans, but if we win this election and win the presidency, we can do it."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., took that approach as lawmakers prepared to leave town for the holidays.

"To the extent that we have not been able to enact legislation," Hoyer said, "it has been not because the American public didn't overwhelmingly support us, but because the president vetoed legislation that the American public was for, or the Republican obstructionists in the Senate failed to give the 60 votes necessary to get something on the floor."

Democrats have a 51-49 working majority in the 100-member Senate, but under rules designed to protect minority rights, it takes 60 votes to push controversial measures through. Republicans frequently managed to block Democrats by denying them 60 votes.

As 2007 winds down, here's the score sheet from Capitol Hill:

Democrats raised the federal minimum wage as promised — from $5.85 an hour to $7.25 an hour by mid-2009. They also passed a higher motor vehicle fuel-economy standard for the first time in three decades, to 35 mpg by 2020. They cut college student loan rates and expanded Pell grants.

And through the first female House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, they chose to follow a confrontational agenda with Bush and Republican lawmakers, and on the big tests, largely failed.

However, Democrats lacked enough votes to impose a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq — or even to block Bush's troop surge — and to increase civil liberties protections in warrantless wiretaps.

They couldn't pass an immigration overhaul to deal with an estimated 12 million undocumented residents, even though Republicans split over that.

They couldn't extend state health insurance coverage to 10 million children, or lift the president's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, or legislate cheaper prescription drugs.

They didn't eliminate most of the perks for oil and energy companies, venture capitalists and hedge funds that they'd criticized. So they couldn't find a way to pay for an emergency patch to spare 21 million middle-class Americans from paying the alternative minimum tax. So they passed the AMT patch at the expense of adding some $50 billion to the federal budget deficit. That shredded their pay-as-you-go pledge.

They couldn't force Bush to accept substantial domestic spending increases.

Faced with the president's threatened veto of every spending bill, Democrats agreed to an omnibus bill with billions less than they wanted for programs dear to their constituencies, including Head Start.

Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi read their capitulation this way: "The Democrats said, 'Look, our polling numbers are worse than the president's. We need some production. We need some things we can point to and say 'We got it done.'"

When Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a committee chairman and presidential candidate, saw the amount he wanted for a law enforcement program slashed from $110 million to $20 million in the waning days, he fumed, "We're spending billions on this war abroad, but pocket change on fighting crime next door."

Democrats have used their newfound power to investigate Bush, including launching an inquiry into the politicization of the Justice Department, which led to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation. And their majority has stopped Bush from pursuing new fronts on Social Security, tax cuts or social conservatives' agenda.

But as for pledges to encourage bipartisanship, Republicans say that Democrats have limited their ability to study major legislation until only hours before votes — just as Democrats complained the Republicans did when they were in charge.

Democrats did get Republicans to support an ethics bill that promises to increase lobbyist disclosure and curb perks such as free meals and special-interest airplane travel.

But when it comes to earmarks — federal spending for pet projects tucked into spending bills — critics said their revisions were loophole-ridden.

Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the fiscally conservative Heritage Foundation policy institute, said congressional Democrats had "brazenly ignored their pledge to the American people to cut earmarks in half," instead including more than 11,000 this year. Eliminating those, he said, could have saved $20 billion.

CONGRESS' ACHIEVEMENTS AND FAILURES

DONE

  • Increased minimum wage to $7.25/hr. by 2009.
  • Raised auto fuel-efficiency standards, first time in three decades, and mandated biofuels.
  • Passed 9-11 commission recommendations.
  • Expanded veterans' health care.
  • Reduced student loan rates and increased Pell grants.
  • Overhauled congressional ethics rules.
  • Mounted many investigations of Bush administration.

NOT DONE

  • _ Enact withdrawal plan for Iraq war.
  • Pass comprehensive immigration overhaul.
  • Lift funding limits on embryonic stem-cell research.
  • Expand health insurance to 10 million children.
  • Pay for all legislation; failed to cover $50 billion for fixing AMT.
  • End tax perks for oil companies.
  • Raise tax rate on hedge funds.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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