What Has the Record-Setting House Achieved?
The House this week surpassed the 1,000-vote mark for the first time in a single year, a milestone hailed by the Democrats as a sign of the new majority's hard-working commitment to reshaping the domestic and foreign policy agenda.
But House Republicans see it much differently, saying the record-setting roll call votes provide the perfect symbol of a Democratic leadership that has few strong accomplishments and that has largely spun its wheels, albeit at a faster voting rate than in previous congresses.
"They're measuring quantity, not quality," chirps Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Putnam's counterpart as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, retorts: "I don't care how many votes we have to take, as long as it improves people's lives."
That's the central dilemma that Capitol Briefing explored in a short story in the Washington Post about Wednesday's 1,000th roll-call vote of 2007. And it's going to be the central theme of the 2008 congressional elections that will decide whether to preserve - and possibly expand - Speaker Nancy Pelosi's majority, or force the San Francisco Democrat to surrender the gavel after just a two-year reign.
A do-nothing Congress? Or a do-everything Congress? (Everything but stopping the war, Democrats concede.)
There may be a third possibility that is closer to the mark: that Pelosi's Democrats have committed the sin of trying to do so much all at once that they have come nowhere near the expectation level of last November's tide-turning midterm elections.
Let's consider those two issues: the hefty agenda and the expectations that came with the majority.
Six for '06
Pelosi's leadership team set a furious pace trying to pass bills in all six of their agenda issues within the first 100 hours of January floor time, passing bills to raise the minimum wage, implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and expand access to student loans, among others. Most items, poll tested, passed with huge bipartisan majorities, as did an ethics reform package.
And Democrats continued pushing other key items this year at a pace mirroring that of a dozen years ago, after Newt Gingrich's House Republicans seized control of the chamber for the first time in more than 50 years. (For sheer vote totals, 1995 and 2007 were the busiest years since the 1970s.)
However, as the blizzard of legislation shifted to the Senate and into conference committees and the on to the White House, it's become difficult to keep track of which bills actually made it into law and which bills died by senatorial filibuster or presidential veto. And the incredible media focus on the Democrats failure to impose a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq detracted from most other issues and largely overshadowed other accomplishments.
Just before Memorial Day, for instance, President Bush signed into law the first minimum wage hike in 11 years, a MAJOR victory for Democrats and their big labor allies. Yet that accomplishment gained little attention because it was part of the broader spending package that gave Bush $100 billion for the Iraq war. Democrats didn't get around to celebrating the wage hike until many weeks later.
In this regard, Gingrich's Republicans had similar problems. Their serious achievements - a law rescinding billions of dollars in appropriations from the previous fiscal year, a new ethics package, welfare reform - were quickly forgotten after they shut down the federal government in a high stakes budget battle with President Bill Clinton. Gingrich lost that battle just as soundly as Pelosi's defeat on Iraq.
The Expectations Game
Once Gingrich retired, Republicans abandoned his hyperkinetic model and began to narrowly tailor their agenda, setting one or two achievable goals each year. Think of the way Bush won $1.3 trillion worth of tax cuts in early 2001 and then secured passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in late 2001, early 2002.
This spare agenda allowed the Republicans to exceed expectations each year, crowing about passing a Medicare-prescription drug bill in late 2003, for example, when little else was achieved on domestic issues. (This model ran aground in 2005, when Bush bit off more than he and Congress could chew politically by trying to reform Social Security.)
House Democrats have had difficulty keeping expectations in check all year long. Their first failure came with Iraq, which throughout the winter and spring led to major votes over imposing a withdrawal deadline. The build-up was dramatic and theatric, backed up by campaign-style ads run by outside allies such as Americans United for Change. The indelible impression was that Democrats were on the verge of ending the war. Yet the reality was they were nowhere near the two-thirds majority needed to override Bush's veto. By the summer anti-war liberals were crestfallen, bringing congressional approval ratings down with them.
Flash forward to this fall, and a similar war drum has been beating for weeks over Bush's veto of the $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Americans United ran more than $1 million in ads against key GOP lawmakers, yet not a single Republican vote was switched on the veto override roll call last week and then failed again late yesterday to pass a veto-proof bill.
Campaign strategists view the issue as a political win for House Democrats because some vulnerable Republicans opposed the popular SCHIP program. And Pelosi vowed to reporters that "we're certainly not leaving" for Thanksgiving break until the issue is resolved.
Raising the expectations bar again, if Democrats cannot craft a bill that gets signed into law, Pelosi will have once again inadvertently delivered another blow to the view of Democratic power in Congress.
October 26, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
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