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New York Times: Could Congress Be Waking Up?

By Thomas E. Mann, Molly Reynolds and Nigel Holmes

AMID the clamor of the presidential campaign, it's sometimes easy to forget that all 435 House seats and 35 of the Senate's seats are up for election this year, too. So how should Congress under its new Democratic leadership be judged?

The public has reached a decidedly negative conclusion, based on Congress's inability to force a change in policy on the Iraq war and the pitched partisan battles that characterized much of the year in Washington.

But expectations for seismic change in policymaking after the 2006 midterm elections were almost certainly too high, given the deep ideological differences between the parties, the Democrats' narrow majorities, the now-routine Senate filibusters and a Republican president determined to go his own way on Iraq, the budget and domestic policy.

Based on our research, the 110th Congress does deserve some praise. In 2007, the level of energy and activity on Capitol Hill picked up markedly. This is not surprising -- when the Newt Gingrich Congress, its closest analogue, took over in 1995, the pace of legislative life sped up, too.

In terms of both the number and significance of new public laws, however, last year's Democratic majority significantly outperformed that Republican Congress. Only one item described in the Republican Contract With America was signed into law at the end of 1995, while most of the proposals the Democrats announced as their agenda were enacted.

Democrats, to be sure, aimed lower in their specific legislative promises, but they managed to overcome the many obstacles in their way. Republicans in 1995 shot for the moon and ended up frustrated by Senate inaction, presidential vetoes and a government shutdown that proved politically damaging.

The new Democratic Congress delivered on the promise of ethics and lobbying reform, and made considerable progress in reining in earmarks, which had exploded under the previous 12 years of mostly Republican rule. In fact, between the 2006 and 2008 fiscal years, the cost of appropriations earmarks appears to have dropped from $29 billion to $14.1 billion. Perhaps most important, Congress reasserted itself as a rightful check on the executive branch, significantly stepping up its oversight on a wide range of important subjects.

But a less partisan, more deliberative and productive legislative process will have to await a clearer signal from voters in the 2008 elections.

The chart below shows how the 110th Congress spent its time, and what it accomplished, in its first year under Democratic control, compared with its immediate predecessor and with the Republican Congress that took office in 1995.

The chart can be accessed here.

Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of 'The Broken Branch.' Molly Reynolds is a senior research assistant at Brookings. Nigel Holmes is a graphic designer.