The Do-Anything Congress

Inside the Beltway, Democrats are touting the achievements of the outgoing Congress. Historian Alan Brinkley asserted that this is the most productive Congress since the Great Society. These congratulatory assessments stand in stark contrast to the fact that Democrats, for all their labors, suffered a defeat of such historic proportions that it gave rise to a new word: “refudiation.” What explains this paradox?

First, much of the legislation passed in the 111th Congress is not really legislation at all. For all of its verbosity, and for all the outrage surrounding provisions like the individual mandate, the health care legislation enacted in 2010 makes precious few decisions. Instead, vast discretionary authority is vested in dozens of different agencies and officials, in particular the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

When confronted with tough decisions, Congress prefers to let someone else make laws. Congressmen can then claim credit for providing Americans with health care, while evading blame for increased costs and premiums, poorer quality of care, rationing, massive uncertainty, and higher wait times. The rules that led to those unfortunate consequences were made by regulators, who will give shape to legislation, and who would bear the brunt of public ire.

Second, Washington insiders tend to subscribe to the belief that what Americans expect of Congress is that it produce a certain quantity of legislation. Outgoing House Rules Committee chairman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) captured this belief when she lamented that “what we did was work, and our reward was, ‘Get out of here.'” The volume of legislation produced by the Democratic 111th Congress should have been reason enough for voters to sustain Democrats in office.

This view confuses the quantity of legislation enacted with the quality of that legislation in the eyes of voters. It ignores the fact that large portions of this Congress’ work remain deeply unpopular with the electorate. Congressional Democrats seem to have grown to believe their own talking points: that support for key legislation would increase as people came to understand what Congress had achieved. At the very least, public animosity would subside as Americans became reconciled to their fate.

The opposite has proven to be true. Support for health care reform is at an all-time low, according to a December 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll. The more people learn about health care reform, the less they like it. While Congress avoided making many decisions, the decisions they did make allowed voters to make judgments about the fruits of Congress’ labors. Americans were dissatisfied with the substance of their work, and voted accordingly.

Third, the initiatives this Congress pursued reflected the priorities of the Democratic leadership. In the past two years Americans expected the federal government to focus on jobs and the economy. Democrats responded with a $787 billion “stimulus” bill, which most Americans now perceive as a failure that greatly increased the federal debt. Much of the money went to protect unionized public sector, automobile manufacturing, and construction jobs, making the stimulus a taxpayer-funded payoff to key Democratic constituencies.

Congress then spent eight months attempting to engineer the government takeover of health care, a century-old progressive pipedream, while the economy continued to deteriorate. They passed cap-and-trade in the House, which would have imposed confiscatory taxes and strangling regulations on every activity of the American economy. Democrats attempted to impose amnesty for illegal aliens, repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell”, took over federal students loans, and in general sought to gratify a wish list of liberal priorities decades in the making.

These goals were inconsistent with the priorities of many Americans, and were not the basis upon which President Obama and congressional Democrats were elected. Americans were frustrated with two wars, angered by Republican corruption and profligacy, and worried about the economy. Obama campaigned as a post-partisan moderate, who would heal old divisions and forge broad political coalitions. Instead, Democrats signaled that they would cater to the desires of their progressive liberal base, without regard for the broader electorate.

Pursuing these priorities compelled Democrats to neglect others. In 2006, Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), attacking the then-Republican Congress, stated that any majority that could not pass all required budget legislation did not deserve to remain in the majority. The 111th Congress, with Spratt as House Budget Committee chairman, failed to pass any budget legislation. Moreover, Speaker Nancy Pelosi preferred to adjourn the House prior to the November elections, rather than resolve the problem of the impending expiration of the “Bush tax cuts.” Tax increases were only averted when President Obama negotiated a deal with Republicans.

Rather than being the most productive Congress in decades, the 111th Congress was the Congress that would do anything to achieve cherished progressive goals. Many, including the President, claimed that it would be better to achieve these goals than to secure re-election, and now they are getting their wish. The outstanding question is whether constitutional government can survive the 111th Congress.

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