Public approval of Congress has never been worse: this week, Gallup tracked the highest disapproval rating it has ever recorded for the legislative branch, with 83 percent disapproving and only 13 percent approving of the job being done by lawmakers. Conservatives like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) have blasted this Congress as “a disaster,” while some liberal groups complained through much of this term that “[h]opes for change are turning to disappointment as Congress fails to meet goals for a progressive agenda.”
There is no debate, however, that the 111th Congress passed a historic volume of substantial legislation, whatever one might think about the merits of these achievements. Historian Alan Brinkley told Bloomberg yesterday that “[t]his is probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the ’60s,” for an article outlining the historic achievements of this session:
For the first time since President Theodore Roosevelt began the quest for a national health-care system more than 100 years ago, the Democrat-led House and Senate took the biggest step toward achieving that goal by giving 32 million Americans access to insurance. Congress rewrote the rules for Wall Street in the most comprehensive way since the Great Depression. It spent more than $1.67 trillion to revive an economy on the verge of a depression, including tax cuts for most Americans, jobs for more than 3 million, construction of roads and bridges and investment in alternative energy; ended an almost two-decade ban against openly gay men and women serving in the military, and today ratified a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
In addition to these headline achievements, the 111th Congress also:
— Passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for women and other minorities to file equal-pay discrimination lawsuits.
— Overhauled the federal student loan system, eliminating billions of dollars of waste being paid to for-profit loan companies while expanding access to loans, especially for low-income students.
— Passed legislation to help Sept. 11 first responders deal with ongoing health problems.
— Expanded the Children’s Health Insurance Program to include an additional 4 million children and pregnant women, after the Bush administration denied funding increases for years.
— Passed child nutrition legislation, which expands the federal school lunch program and improves the quality of the meals.
— Enacted food safety legislation, which intends to improve safety measures and prevent food-borne illnesses.
— Approved a settlement for black and Native American farmers that were subject to discrimination by the USDA.
— Passed legislation strengthening the prosecution of hate crimes.
— Passed pro-consumer legislation further regulating abusive practices of credit card companies.
Brinkley also noted these achievements are “all the more impressive given how polarized the Congress has been.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has famously said that “the single most important thing” his party wanted to achieve was a one-term Obama presidency, and congressional Republicans used an unprecedented number of filibusters and filibuster threats; they employed various procedural holds and other tricks to delay or block legislation, and blocked historically high numbers of judicial appointments and appointments to the executive branch. That these legislative achievements occurred in the face of epic Republican obstruction makes them all the more noteworthy.