A contrarian defense of the 111th Congress

A CONTRARIAN DEFENSE OF THE 111TH CONGRESS…. The conventional wisdom on the current Congress seems pretty compelling. This is a Congress facing incredible challenges, and is struggling to rise to the occasion.

It’s a perception I’ve largely bought into. When I think about what would be possible if legislation could be approved by majority rule in the House and Senate — the way the legislative branch was designed to function, and the way it operated for nearly 200 years — it’s hard not to feel bitter disappointment.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein challenges these perceptions in a surprisingly compelling Washington Post op-ed today, describing this Congress as being on “a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66.”

Of particular interest was Ornstein’s description of the scope of the stimulus package.

The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it — $288 billion — came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.

Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive. Instead, this Congress did it in one bill.

And while the economic recovery package was the most important legislative accomplishment of the last year, Ornstein also highlights successful bills on expanding children’s health insurance, providing stiff oversight of the TARP funds, regulating tobacco, the largest land conservation law in nearly two decades, a credit card holders’ bill of rights, and defense procurement reform.

And the House, meanwhile, has approved a historic cap-and-trade bill, sweeping financial regulatory changes, a jobs bill, and health care reform — and maybe some of these might manage to work their way through a dysfunctional Senate.

Democratic leaders, Ornstein, argues, “deserve great credit for these achievements.”

I wouldn’t want the governing majority to rest on its laurels — for the love of God, pass health care reform — but Ornstein’s overview of the first year of the 111th Congress paints a pretty compelling picture. Dems who feel the need to be defensive may want to read it, share it, and push its conclusions.