Democratic Congress Productive But Unpopular

December 23, 2010

Perhaps never before has a U.S. Congress done more and been liked less than the one controlled by President Barack Obama’s Democrats that ended Wednesday.

It wrapped up its two-year legislative cycle with a crush of action in its final days, including an extension of expiring tax cuts for millions of Americans and approval of a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty.

These and other successes, however, were overshadowed by voter anger about the near double-digit U.S. jobless rate.

It’s a chief reason why Congress has had an approval rating of just 13 percent — one of the lowest ever — and why Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and picked up more Senate seats in the Nov. 2 election. Republicans will flex their new muscle in the 112th Congress that convenes on Jan. 5.

In the meantime, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and other congressional scholars call the last Congress one of the most productive of the past half century.

Here’s a look at some of the major measures enacted and defeated.

MAJOR BILLS ENACTED

  • An $858-billion package of tax cuts and extension of unemployment benefits that Obama hopes will create new jobs. Some economists predict it will add 1 percentage point to economic growth in 2011.
  • The biggest overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system in 40 years, one designed to extend coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, drive down costs and make it tougher for insurance companies to cancel coverage. There are court challenges to the law’s constitutionality and Republicans vow to overturn it, which is seen as unlikely.
  • A U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty — a major foreign policy victory for Obama in his bid to improve ties with Moscow and curb the spread of atomic weapons to other nations.
  • The broadest overhaul of financial rules since the 1930s, which tightened regulation of Wall Street in an effort to avoid a repeat of the 2007-2009 financial crisis. While the measure drew heavy media coverage, polls have shown that most Americans are unfamiliar with it.
  • An $814 billion economic stimulus package in February 2009 to create jobs and boost growth amid recession. Republicans denounced the package as a dud, pointing to a jobless rate that has hovered at around 10 percent. But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says it prevented even tougher economic times by creating or saving millions of jobs.
  • A repeal of the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. military. Congress fulfilled Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to end “don’t ask don’t tell,” the 17-year-old policy that allowed gays to serve in the military only as long as they kept their sexual orientation secret.
  • In the biggest change in nearly a half century in college loans, Congress halted federal subsidies to private lenders and redirected billions of dollars in savings to needy students.
  • Legislation to expand a popular federal health insurance program for children.
  • Hailed by environmentalists as one of the most sweeping land and conservation measures in decades, legislation set aside about two million acres — parks, rivers, streams, desert, forest and trails — in nine states as new wilderness areas and rendered them off limits to oil and gas drilling and other development.
  • Granted the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products in an attempt to reduce smoking, the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the U.S.
  • A bill of rights for credit card holders, providing new consumer protections, including banning unfair rate increases, abusive fees and penalties.
  • Legislation that effectively reversed a divided 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made it tougher to sue for wage discrimination.

MAJOR BILLS DEFEATED:

  • Comprehensive climate control legislation, including a “cap and trade” mechanism for reducing carbon pollution while creating a trading system for industrial permits to emit CO2.
  • Stricter controls on offshore oil drilling.
  • Legislation to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children.
  • New trade restrictions on goods from countries with fundamentally undervalued currencies, such as China.

(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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