Doing what they were elected to do

DOING WHAT THEY WERE ELECTED TO DO…. The American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein had a very good piece a while back that characterized the 111th Congress as the most productive in 45 years.

That was in January. In the 11 months since, policymakers have put together a record of success that rivals any two-year stretch in the modern era. NBC’s Mark Murray had a good item on this earlier in the week.

With an approval rating in the teens, Congress right now is about as popular as Julian Assange at the State Department’s Christmas Party — or Sarah Palin at The Nation’s editorial meeting, or President Obama at a Federalist Society convention.

And, politically, the Democratic-controlled Congress took a beating from voters in November, as Republicans won back control of the House and picked up seats in the Senate.

But lost in the poll numbers and the voters’ message in November is this one unmistakable fact: This Congress, which likely will come to a close this week, accomplished more, legislatively, than any other Congress since the 1960s (the Great Society) or the 1930s (the New Deal).

Ornstein noted yesterday, “This is the most dysfunctional political environment that I have ever seen. But then you have to juxtapose that with [this Congress being] one of, at least, the three most productive Congresses” since 1900. He added that the 111th “edges the Great Society” in terms of accomplishments.

I’m aware of the fact that this record hasn’t exactly impressed voters, many of whom don’t even realize that this two-year stretch was productive at all. A weak economy, stunted discourse, and partisan enthusiasm gap contributed to massive GOP electoral gains, Dems’ dramatic accomplishments notwithstanding.

But the historic record is nevertheless undeniable. It’s hard to even know where to start.

We are, after all, talking about a two-year span in which Democratic policymakers approved the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, a critically important nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, net neutrality, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and some other accomplishments I’m probably forgetting*.

All of this was accomplished in the midst of multiple crises here and around the world, and for the first time in American history, with mandatory supermajorities in the U.S. Senate. And don’t get me started on the disaster Dems inherited — Great Recession, two deadly wars, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit and budget mess, crushing debt, etc. — after the spectacular Republican failures of the Bush/Cheney era.

Some of the recent victories have been decades in the making — in the case of health care reform, politicians have been talking about a major overhaul for a full century — but it took this Congress and this president to get it done.

To be sure, the “season of progress,” as President Obama called it yesterday, is over. A new Congress will begin next month, with what will likely be the most reactionary right-wing House majority in the modern political era. If you’re not expecting bitter ugliness, you’re probably not paying attention.

Still, the Congress that wrapped up its work yesterday was truly remarkable. Something Rachel Maddow said last month continues to ring true: “Democrats had a choice when they became the governing party. When they won those last two elections and they took control of the two branches of government that are subject to partisan control in our country, they could have governed in a way that was about accumulating political capital with the primary goal of winning the next election. They could have governed in constant campaign mode. Or they could have governed in a way that was about using their political capital, not accumulating more of it, about spending the political capital they had to get a legislative agenda done, to tackle big, complex, longstanding problems that had languished.”

Democrats paid a high price, but they chose wisely.

* Update: As various readers have reminded me, I forgot the child-nutrition bill, expanded S-CHIP, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.