Like Rodney Dangerfield, this Congress doesn't get much respect. Americans rate it slightly above sludge, but below George Bush, the least admired president in the history of polling. McCain strategists hope to discredit Barack Obama by linking him to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Progressives shudder as they watch Democrats hand over a blank check to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for the bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and rail against the coming collapse on off-shore oil drilling. Republicans chant about the "do-nothing Congress."
But take another look. The reputation of the Congress would be very different had the Republican minority and George Bush not orchestrated a systematic campaign of obstruction to bottle up any progress. For example, majorities in both Houses of Congress voted for:
Setting a date certain to bring the occupation of Iraq to an end, freeing up the $12 billion a month in direct costs (about a billion a day in total) for vital needs here at home;
Saving seniors tens of billions in prescription drug prices by empowering Medicare to negotiate discounts for its bulk purchases;
Investing billions in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, generating green collar jobs, and paying for it by repealing subsidies for oil companies already pocketing the greatest profits in recorded history;
Providing health care for millions of children of working and poor families, giving them with a chance for a healthy start to life;
Ensuring that soldiers be guaranteed adequate rest and recovery between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan;
The Congress also managed to pass the first increase in the minimum wage in a decade, the largest increase in college aid since the GI Bill, and cleaned up its own act a bit. Now this isn't everything, but stopping a bad war, changing our energy policy, caring for the troops and providing more affordable health care to seniors and children isn't a bad start.
What stopped these measures from becoming law was a purposeful and unprecedented "block and blame" obstruction strategy by the Republican minority. In the Senate, Republicans have routinely filibustered every major piece of Democratic legislation. As a report by the Campaign for America's Future which I help direct reveals, this has forced a record number of cloture votes that require a super-majority of sixty votes to end the filibusters. This was reinforced by over 119 veto threats by President Bush(who never issued a veto as the previous Republican congresses ran up record deficits). Majority rule has essentially been repealed.
The strategy hasn't been a secret. Conservatives have openly gloated about it. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer told Fox News viewers, "I think [Democrats' inability to pass legislation][ will give the Republicans the one opening they are going to have in 2008. Everything is running against the Republicans, but I think they have a chance if they argue that the Democrats have been in charge and they are the do-nothing Congress." Or as former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss, told Roll Call, "The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail...and so far it's working for us."
Now this is sort of like knee-capping the postman and then complaining that the mail is late. Will Republicans get away with it? As the economy has plummeted, they've started to worry. Recently, Republican Senators up for re-election have started to bail out, moving to help overcome filibusters and veto threats on Medicare funding. Politico reports that GOP leaders are advising vulnerable senators to "get well" with voters by siding with Democrats on everything but energy and national security.
As the economy gets worse, incumbent legislators should be nervous whether in the majority or the minority. But as Republicans posture about the do-nothing Congress, it's worth remembering that much would have gotten done had they not been in the way.