House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues Rep. Barney Frank (left) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (right) celebrated passing a financial reform bill this month. But will it be enough to please voters?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues Rep. Barney Frank (left) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (right) celebrated passing a financial reform bill this month. But will it be enough to please voters? AP
Wednesday, President Obama will sign into law a sweeping new package of Wall Street regulations. It's a big win for Democrats, following a year and a half of legislative wins that rivals any Congress in half a century. But it comes at a price: The majority party has taken a pummeling from the GOP in that time, and polls show the Democrats have largely fallen out of favor with independent voters.
Regardless of one's opinions about the health care bill, the new financial regulations, the economic stimulus package and student loans, the sheer volume of legislation this Congress has passed is pretty impressive. And the scope of the work is very ambitious, says analyst Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute.
"The reach that it will have on people's lives in areas from health to education to finance — it's really quite remarkable," he says. "And of course, made even more remarkable by the fact that it's being done in a poisonous, rancorous, partisan and ideological environment."
To give you a sense of just how rancorous — consider that on the day the health care overhaul passed, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the chairwoman of the House Rules committee, could hardly finish a sentence without her longtime colleague, Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the panel, interrupting her. Dreier repeatedly sought to derail Slaughter from speaking about the bill on the House floor.
By the end of that day, Democrats accomplished what some had called impossible — they passed a massive restructuring of America's health care system. Their problem is, they did it alone.
"We've done a lot — there's no question about that," says Democratic Rep. Baron Hill, who represents southeastern Indiana. "Some of it is politically very difficult to try to defend back home, though."
You can't say Democrats didn't keep their promise, says Hill.
The problem is how they did it, says another conservative Democrat, Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia. The fact that the leadership couldn't build almost any good will with moderate Republicans — much less true bipartisanship — will hurt everyone, Marshall says.
"It's very inappropriate for government to make a decision to head in one direction, and then all of a sudden things switch and you're heading in the opposite direction. Business can't rely on that, people interested in making investments can't rely on that, the American public can't rely on that," Marshall says. "We need a steady course. And it's very difficult to find a steady course as we flip to extremes when one side or the other takes over."
Democrats blame the acrimony on the Republicans — who began almost unanimous opposition to President Obama's legislative initiatives just three weeks into his presidency.
Whichever side you blame, Democrats are paying a political price. Congressional approval ratings hit a record low; incumbents are facing strong primary challenges — and as Democrat Alvin Greene proved in the South Carolina Senate primary, a guy no one's heard of can beat the party's choice to be the candidate.
It sure makes Rep. Chris Van Hollen's job difficult — he's the guy in charge of getting Democrats reelected to the House. Van Hollen doesn't buy the argument that Democrats took change farther than voters wanted. He says that something else is bothering them — the economy. And Democrats are working on that, he says.
"But we're not out of the woods," Van Hollen says. "You know, we haven't gotten out of the really tough economy that was inherited, and that's why the American people — understandably — are anxious about the future."
There are some signs that Democrats have stopped the bleeding. A new Gallup poll this week asked the generic question, "If the election were today, which party's candidate would you vote for?" Of those responding, 49 percent said the Democrats, compared to 43 percent for the Republicans.
And a Pew Research Center poll shows that most respondents believe the stimulus bill helped state and local governments to avoid budget cuts — and helped keep unemployment from getting worse.
But analyst Ornstein says that no one thinks that Democrats aren't going to take a hit in November. And so if you thought Congress was nasty this year — just you wait.
Ornstein predicts "much more rancor and division inside Congress."
Democrats will likely lose some of their more conservative members — pushing the party to the left. Republicans are riding a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm, pushing the GOP to the right.
So while this has been an incredibly productive Congress, says Ornstein, for the next one he predicts gridlock.