Obama’s Big Success—Sort Of

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images
President Barack Obama with Senator Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank after signing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Washington, D.C., July 21, 2010

It seems a different era already, those days in 2009 and 2010 when Barack Obama and his large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress were passing major pieces of legislation. And it was a different era—as we have seen since the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives after the 2010 elections. Since then, legislation of any significance has been nearly impossible to come by.

The official record shows the passage of 283 laws by the 112th Congress, which sat from January 2011 to January 2013. It sounds like an impressive number, but in fact most of these were technical or quite narrow in scope. At most there were fewer than ten truly important pieces of legislation, and arguably fewer than five. Virtually all had to do with the ongoing fiscal trench warfare, simultaneously grueling and tedious, that engulfed the capital during the 112th Congress and has continued into the current 113th. The bills were passed through clenched teeth on both sides.

Beltway insiders, the people from think tanks and nonprofit groups and such who have devoted their careers to seeking legislative outcomes, must persuade themselves that the legislative process can still work. Moments of vindication and triumph—a fiscal “grand bargain” between the two parties, bipartisan immigration reform, new gun control laws—must be within their grasp. Otherwise what are they doing with themselves all day, and why? The Beltway culture requires that these people make, at meetings and seminars, frequent professions of optimism as the audience members nod their heads hopefully, even as everyone knows these professions to be false.

The fact is that Capitol Hill barely functions. Its secondary purposes are still met with efficiency: staffers help constituents with their Medicaid questions; members secure funding for new senior centers; letters of congratulations are mailed out to centenarians; the artwork of promising high schoolers continues to be mounted in the long, curving subterranean hallway from the Longworth House Office Building to the Capitol. But there is hardly any legislation.

One is tempted (especially if one is a Democrat) to think back on 2009 and 2010 as a comparative golden era. And comparatively, it was. There was credit card reform, student loan reform, and equal pay for women, to start with the smaller but still quite meaningful items. Then, of course, there was health care, the new approach to the stimulus, the rescue of the auto companies, and financial reform. But the great value of Robert G. Kaiser’s Act of Congress, which chronicles the financial reform bill from inception to passage, is its refusal to accept the Washington cliché and argue that the Dodd-Frank legislation represents a moment when Congress worked the way it is supposed to.

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