The outgoing 111th Congress is among the most productive in history, in spite of its reputation for gridlock and 13 percent approval rating. Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, and used their large majorities to push through landmark legislation with barely any GOP support.
The post-election lame-duck session – typically a mopping-up operation to get out of town – also made history, passing key pieces of legislation, often with greater input from Republicans than had earlier been the case. People can argue the merits of what Congress did, but it’s hard to quibble with the scope of the undertaking. Here are six of this Congress’ major accomplishments, in the order in which they were approved. — Gail Russell Chaddock, Staff writer
1. American Recovery & Reinvestment Act
The $819 billion economic stimulus package, signed into law February 2009 less than a month after Barack Obama became president, is the largest stand-alone spending bill in US history. It included tax cuts, as well as new spending for public works, education, clean energy, technology, and health care.
House Republicans united to oppose the bill, which they dubbed a job killer because it added to an unsustainable national deficit. Three centrist Republicans joined Democrats to break a filibuster in the Senate.
The stimulus bill would become campaign grist for tea party opponents, who said it focused on saving public-sector jobs, rather than stimulating private-sector job creation, and did not “create or save” 3.5 million jobs in two years, as the White House had promised.
2. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
Congress battled for a year to pass health-care reform, which was finally a done deal March 23, 2010. The law mandates that all Americans obtain health insurance coverage, and it sets up entities called health exchanges to provide people with affordable options.
The law gives insurance companies a guaranteed pool of clients across all age brackets – including healthy young people, many of whom currently go without insurance. In exchange, insurance companies must end discrimination based on preexisting health conditions, lifetime caps on coverage, arbitrary termination of coverage, and other practices Congress deemed abusive.
Democrats claimed the bill would cut deficits and create jobs. The House version passed with no votes from Republicans, who disliked mandates on small businesses to provide coverage to employees. The election in January of Republican Sen. Scott Brown to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts meant Democrats no longer had the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster. In the end, Speaker Nancy Pelosi persuaded House Democrats to adopt the Senate version of the bill, unacceptable to many, and then approve “fixes” under a budget procedure that eliminated the possibility of a Senate filibuster.
Many Republicans campaigned in the 2010 midterms to defund and replace health-care reform. The bill that funds government operations through the first part of 2011, passed this week, does not include $1 billion in funding for health-care reform or startup costs for health-care reform that Democrats had sought. House Republicans promise further cuts in the new Congress, when they will have the majority.
3. Financial regulatory reform
Known officially as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the new law is the most significant regulatory overhaul of the financial system since the Depression ended in the 1930s. Signed into law in July 2010, it aims to end bailouts forced on taxpayers by financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” and to protect consumers. Included in the legislation is a powerful, independent consumer-protection bureau, an early-warning system for financial groups deemed too big to fail, new oversight of credit agencies, and lower fees on debit-card charges. It also directs much of the $600 trillion over-the-counter derivatives trade through clearinghouses and exchanges.
The law is especially vulnerable to deep cuts in agency budgets, which Republicans are predicting for the next Congress.
4. Big tax-cut extension, plus new stimulus
Congress averted the largest tax increase in American history by voting in December to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, including for the highest-income households.
The deal Obama cut with Republican lawmakers also includes billions in stimulus spending, including a one-year payroll tax holiday that slashes by one-third what workers pay into Social Security each pay period, effective Jan. 1, 2011. It extends federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed for another 13 months, continues tax credits for college students, expands access to the $1,000 child-tax credit, and protects some 22 million families from the alternative minimum tax, which Congress neglected to index for inflation when it created the AMT in 1982.
The most controversial element of the package, perhaps, exempts inherited property from the estate tax for estates up to $5 million (for individuals) and $10 million (for couples). If Congress had not acted, as of 2011 estates of more than $1 million would have been taxed at a rate of 55 percent. Democrats would have lowered the threshold for taxation, and taxed eligible estates at a higher rate than the final legislation calls for.
Ending the Bush-era tax cuts for high-income taxpayers was important to Democrats, who campaigned in 2006, 2008, and 2010 to do just that. But after much uproar, enough of them backed Obama in the end to allow the compromise package to pass.
5. Repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’
Fulfilling campaign pledges of the last two Democratic presidents, Obama on Dec. 22 signed a law that repeals a 17-year ban on gay men and women serving openly in the US armed services.
Early in his first term, President Bill Clinton tried to lift a longstanding ban on homosexuals serving in the military, but he ran into strong opposition from Congress. As a compromise, the administration developed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which Congress approved in 1993. That’s been the law of the land ever since. Obama, too, sought to end the policy, and Congress proved to be ready for such a step this time. Human rights groups compare the vote with President Harry Truman’s ending the ban on racial segregation in the military in 1948.
Six GOP senators joined Democrats to ensure the repeal would not get stymied in the Senate. The House had approved the measure on Dec. 15, with 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans voting with the other side of the aisle. The votes came after a Pentagon survey this fall found a majority of service members did not object to gays serving openly in the military. Some top brass, however, have lately expressed concerns that allowing gays to serve openly could be disruptive to the cohesion of combat units.
At least 60 days before the law takes effect, the president and the defense secretary must certify that ending the policy won’t adversely affect military readiness or morale. “We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done,” Obama said at the signing ceremony.
6. New nuclear arms pact with Russia
The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia reduces the US and Russian arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 apiece within seven years. The Senate ratified the treaty Dec. 22 by a vote of 71 to 26.
New START, as it is known, extends the START II, which expired December 2009. It also allows US inspections of Russian nuclear weapons sites to resume. During months of negotiation with the White House over terms of the treaty, Republican senators held out for evidence that the administration is also willing to modernize American’s nuclear force structure.
The Senate ratification of New START marks a step toward fulfilling Obama’s campaign pledge to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.