This Congress Did A Lot, But What's Next?

Originally published on December 26, 2010 4:13 pm

The session of Congress about to come to an end -- the 111th -- has passed more legislation than any Congress since the 1960s.

The most recent milestones spring to mind easily: the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," extension of Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment relief compromise.

But over the course of two years, the 111th Congress also passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted new legislation to regulate the credit and banking industries and passed health care reform.

As members of the 112th Congress prepare for their swearing-in on Jan. 5, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University, tells NPR's Guy Raz that there are lessons to be learned from their prolific predecessors.

A Legislative Powerhouse

Like 2008, the 1964 election of Lyndon Baines Johnson also swept huge Democratic majorities into both houses of Congress. And they came, Zelizer says, "determined to pass a lot of bills that had been talked about for a long time, but never passed."

What they accomplished reads like a list of America's most important government programs.

In two years, the 89th Congress enacted Medicare and Medicaid. It passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a turning point in the history of education funding. It passed the Voting Rights Act, which was crucial in striking down restrictions to voting imposed on African Americans. It passed immigration reform and water pollution control legislation. The list goes on.

"Congress really touches on all aspects of American life," Zelizer says.

But just because a lot was accomplished, he continues, doesn't mean it was easy -- or politically popular.

In the 1966 midterms, a public backlash against Johnson's "Great Society" gave Republicans 47 seats in the house.

"Those members discovered that a lot of legislation -- and major legislation -- doesn't mean you're going to keep your seat come election time," Zelizer says.

The Anti-Lame Duck

As for the current Congress, California Democrat Henry Waxman had a hand in much of the landmark legislation passed by the 111th, and in the climate bill, which passed the House but failed in the Senate.

"I certainly can't remember a lame duck session that has been as productive as these last few months," Waxman tells NPR's Guy Raz. "But this whole last two years of the Congress I think will be judged by history as one of the most significant in modern times."

Unfortunately, Waxman adds, that productivity didn't translate into success at the ballot boxes in November, and now the incoming Republican-controlled House may try to roll back much of the new legislation.

Waxman has been in this situation before, when Republicans took both the House and Senate in 1994. President Clinton famously took a more moderate path in dealing with the Republicans than he had in his first two years in office.

But Waxman says compromise can be a good thing, and he's not worried that President Obama might be swinging too far to the right on issues like extending the Bush-era tax cuts. "The tax bill, while it wasn't the way that I would have liked it, I think the president did very well in the compromise that limited the extension of these tax cuts," he says.

In the end, of course, it's better to be in the majority. But Waxman says he's not discouraged by the thought of a Republican-majority Congress.

"Republicans may have a different agenda. I'll work with them if I can get a chance to do it," he says. "Compromise, to me, is not a dirty word."

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Sometimes, productivity isn't necessarily a virtue, or rather it isn't rewarded. That's a lesson learned by the outgoing 111th Congress. For better or worse, it was the most productive session since the 1964-66 Congress. Take a listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: Earlier this week, I signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the most sweeping economic recovery plan...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...in history.

President OBAMA: Three and a half million Americans will now go...

Unidentified Man #1: ...the House of Representatives has passed health care reform.

Unidentified Man #2: ...benefits of the new law that take effect this year.

President OBAMA: This year, insurance companies will no longer be able to drop people's coverage when they get sick.

Unidentified Man #3: The president right there, signing that bill, the Dodd-Frank bill, into law.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): We give this country, once again, the sense of confidence and optimism about the financial institutions and the financial structures of our country.

President OBAMA: For we are not a nation that says don't ask, don't tell. We are a nation that says, out of many, we are one.

Ms. KATE COURIC (Anchor, "CBS Evening News"): To Washington now where it appears enough Senate Republicans now back President Obama's new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

Unidentified Woman #2: The 9/11 health responders' bill.

President OBAMA: I have no doubt that everyone will find something in this compromise that they don't like.

RAZ: Now, even with big legislative achievements, congressional Democrats were punished, the worst electoral defeat for a party in power in more than 60 years. And if you read the last poll taken by Gallup just a few weeks ago, you'll find that 83 percent of Americans disapprove of how this Congress handled its job.

Now consider this: Just two months before that poll was taken, Gallup took another one and found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believed Congress was doing too much.

So this hour, we begin with a look back on what this Congress managed to do. That's our cover story today.

In a moment, we'll hear from House Democrat Henry Waxman. He's held his seat for 35 years. He's been in the majority. He's been in the minority, back in the majority, and next month, right back to being in the minority.

But first, a reminder of the last time Congress passed so many big-ticket laws.

Here's Princeton historian Julian Zelizer.

Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (History and Public Affairs, Princeton University): Well, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson had been elected.

Unidentified Man #4: And an overwhelming mandate is handed to Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Prof. ZELIZER: A landslide election against Barry Goldwater and brought with him a huge Democratic majority.

Unidentified Man #4: It is an historical, sweeping victory.

Prof. ZELIZER: And many of the Democrats who came into office were determined to take advantage of this window of opportunity that seemed to have emerged and to pass a lot of bills that had been talked about for a long time but never passed.

RAZ: That 89th Congress ushered in arguably the most active two-year legislative period in history.

Prof. ZELIZER: One of the most important pieces of legislation is Medicare.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine.

Prof. ZELIZER: Before that, the elderly could not depend on any, you know, stable kind of health care from the government or from private employers.

Unidentified Man #6: The final Medicare and Medicaid bill passed both houses of Congress by an overwhelming vote.

Prof. ZELIZER: Congress also creates Medicaid to cover people who might not be under the Social Security system. That Congress passes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is really a turning point in our history of education; and the Voting Rights Act, crucial in allowing African-Americans to finally have and be able to depend on the right to vote.

President JOHNSON: This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections.

(Soundbite of applause)

Prof. ZELIZER: I mean, absolutely, there's other areas we forget about. One huge bill that passes in 1965 is immigration reform and ends the quota system that had been in place since the 1920s, a number of bills that really create the environmental era that we've been living in.

For example, Congress passes water pollution control legislation, where the federal government commits to making sure that our water quality is at a certain level.

So Congress really touches on all aspects of American life, again from the elderly and their health care to the quality of water that Americans drink.

RAZ: So, was there a partisan rancor? I mean, was it - to get each of these things passed, was it incredibly difficult and agonizing?

Prof. ZELIZER: Yes. There was a lot of rancor both within the party and between the parties. And what happened was the leadership, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Speaker of the House John McCormack and the president were able to find ways to build coalitions to shepherd the legislation through. But because we got a lot, we shouldn't mistake it for a period where things were relatively calm or legislating was relatively easy.

RAZ: And Julian Zelizer says what Democrats discovered, as the 89th Congress came to a close, was that all that hard work wasn't necessarily good politics.

Prof. ZELIZER: The 89th Congress, by the way, ended with a midterm in 1966 where Republicans gained 47 seats in the House and where there was a backlash against a lot of the Great Society. So those members discovered that a lot of legislation and major legislation doesn't mean you're going to keep your seat come election time.

RAZ: That's historian Julian Zelizer. He spoke to us from Princeton, New Jersey.

Now, right before he left for the break this past week, California Congressman Henry Waxman, one of the leading Democrats in the House, sat down with us to reflect on the 111th Congress.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): This whole last two years of the Congress, I think, will be judged by history as one of the most significant in modern times, certainly the most historic in terms of the scope of achievement since FDR's first term in 1933.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about some of those things. Obviously, there was the stimulus package, health care overhaul, the SCHIP to expand health coverage for children. There was a hate crimes bill. There was a credit card bill of rights. Arguably one of the most productive sessions of Congress in a century, certainly since the mid-1960s.

But I wonder whether productivity is necessarily a virtue, especially given the election results in November for Democrats.

Rep. WAXMAN: The productivity of the Congress didn't translate into votes to reward the Democrats. Well, the president of the United States is also a Democrat.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Rep. WAXMAN: But it will be remembered as a very productive Congress that dealt with big issues, which is what the president wanted to do, and successfully so.

I think, ironically enough, as the Republicans try to repeal some of these laws, the American people will learn more about them and realize how good they are. And so because...

RAZ: I mean, so you would argue that if some of these provisions and measures begin to be repealed, then the American people will start to recognize their value?

Rep. WAXMAN: As the Republicans attempt to repeal them. I don't think they're going to be able to repeal the health care law. But as they try to do it, and if they hold hearings, we'll hear from witnesses who will tell us how important it was to have a law that allowed people with pre-existing medical conditions to have access to health insurance or those who couldn't afford it to get a tax subsidy to help them pay for it.

A lot of people have a negative view of the health care bill, but it is a tremendous accomplishment, one that people have been trying to do for decades.

RAZ: Henry Waxman, I understand that you are unapologetic about all of these laws and pieces of legislation passed and introduced by this Congress. But I wonder whether you can understand some of the skepticism out there in the country over the idea that maybe government has expanded too much, maybe there have been too many big pieces of legislation that have been introduced?

Rep. WAXMAN: I think that's a propaganda line that a lot of people have bought into. If you ask people about their taxes, they'd say that they've been paying higher taxes during the last couple of years, since President Obama has taken power, and in fact, they got a tax break.

RAZ: Well, let's say it is propaganda. You wouldn't discount the fact that many people would make that argument, who believe this.

Rep. WAXMAN: Well, I know that many people would make that argument, but I think a lot of it is put forward by businesses, especially some of the big businesses, that don't want government regulation that is essential if we're going to avoid things like the recession.

RAZ: You have been in this situation before, and you were a member of Congress in 1994 when your party, the Democrats, lost the majority. You saw what happened with Bill Clinton, his transformation into more of a centrist, this notion of triangulation.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen President Obama broker a major tax deal with Republicans. That, of course, passed both houses of Congress. Are you worried about the direction in which the president is headed? As a Democrat, are you worried about it, or do you think this is actually good for the Democrats, good for the country?

Rep. WAXMAN: I think it's good for the country whenever we can get compromises that accomplish something. And the tax bill, while it wasn't exactly the way I would have liked it, I think the president did very well in a compromise that limited the extension of these tax cuts for only two years, so we can revisit them, because I don't think we can afford a permanent extension of tax cuts.

So if we're going to be put in a situation where we're in a stalemate, we'd have to look for ways to bridge the differences in order to benefit the country and the American people.

RAZ: Henry Waxman, in the past, when we've spoken, I've asked you about what it's like to be in the minority. You have argued that you can still get a lot done. But I wonder, are you a bit apprehensive or slightly dreading returning to the minority, where, let's face it, you can't do as much?

Rep. WAXMAN: I've been in the minority. I've been in the majority. Being in the majority is a lot better because you can actually try to focus attention on problems, look for solutions. And Republicans may have a different agenda.

I'll work with them if I can get the chance to do it. If they roll over us and act as they promised, to repeal these laws that we passed like the health care reform act, I'll fight them. But I always look for opportunities to get things done, and compromise to me is not a dirty word.

RAZ: That's California Congressman Henry Waxman.

Congressman Waxman, thank you so much.

Rep. WAXMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.