They lost the election, certainly. And many of them lost their jobs. But the point of legislating isn’t job security. It’s legislation. And on that count the members of the 111th Congress succeeded wildly, even historically.
There was health-care reform, of course. The bill is projected to cover 32 million Americans while cutting the deficit by about $140 billion in the first 10 years—and by hundreds of billions more after that. It creates competitive insurance markets in every state and makes it illegal for insurers to turn you away or jack up your premiums because you have a preexisting condition. It empowers an independent commission to cut Medicare’s costs and ratchets back the tax break for employer-sponsored health-care insurance that’s been at the root of many of our system’s dysfunctions. It begins paying doctors for quality rather than volume. Even Mark McClellan, who directed the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services under George W. Bush, says the bill is “an important step.”
Oh, and next year, chain restaurants will be posting calorie and nutritional information on their menus and drive-through windows. That was the health-care bill, too.
Then there was financial regulation. If you were looking for a bill that reformed the financial-services sector, as I was, Dodd-Frank probably didn’t go as far as you hoped. But it created a system that now includes a regulator for the consumer-financial products that inflated the bubble, a systemic-risk regulator able to watch the institutions that turned the bubble into a crisis, and new powers that can be used to take down the firms that pose a threat to the system without resorting to bailouts. And there were even some industry reforms that people like me wanted, notably the effort to make the derivatives market transparent.
We can’t forget the stimulus, of course. Too small? Absolutely. Were there votes to make it much bigger? Probably not. And even putting aside the economic relief that the expansions of Medicaid, COBRA, food stamps, tax cuts, and unemployment benefits gave to hundreds of millions of Americans, or the millions of jobs the Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation created or saved, there were the investments designed to pay dividends down the road. We’ve begun more than 75,000 infrastructure projects, kicked off the digitization of our medical records, made massive investments in renewable energy, started the Race to the Top program (which even conservatives agree is changing the education system), sent billions to the National Institutes of Health to fund groundbreaking research, and much more.
And those are just the big bills. The 111th Congress also passed Ted Kennedy’s national-service legislation, expanded the Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover 4 million more kids, imposed new regulations on tobacco, and sent President Obama the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. It brought 2 million acres of wilderness into federal protection and expanded veterans’ benefits, particularly for female veterans.
That isn’t to say this Congress or these bills were perfect. Much of the legislation lost popularity as the economy deteriorated, and some pieces, like health-care reform, weren’t popular when they passed. The bills themselves suffer from the shortcomings and crass political dealmaking endemic to everything Washington does. There are plenty of priorities, ranging from more stimulus to energy legislation, that didn’t make it through Congress. And reasonable people disagree on whether these bills were worth doing in the first place. It’s entirely possible to believe the 111th Congress did a lot and that most of it was bad.
We’ll continue to have those arguments. What’s been uncommon about the past two years is that the Democrats in Congress managed to do more than argue: they legislated. They took the agenda they’d run on and made much of it law. This was no do-nothing Congress. This Congress did lots.
Polls have found that the public doesn’t realize how extraordinary this was. Most voters—and that holds for Democrats, too—don’t think the 111th got more accomplished than most Congresses. But they’re wrong. The 111th came to Washington promising to get things done on behalf of the American people. More than any other Congress in decades, it did.