As the first session of the 110th Congress ends, it is hard not to see a mixed bag. After 12 years of being out of power, Democrats took the reigns and achieved several domestic legislative objectives and re-established the institution's oversight and investigative role over the executive branch. However, they also failed to make any progress on the issues that swept them into power last year - because they were either unable, unwilling, or both.
In fact, on foreign policy and national security matters, the Democratic majority largely capitulated towards President Bush, whom continued to carry on as if the 2006 elections never happened to surprisingly great effect. Twice, Democrats gave in on Iraq war funding and failed to attach any meaningful conditions as President Bush increased the number of troops there from the levels that exist prior to Democrats taking power. Democrats also handed him a new FISA bill (albeit temporary) that vastly expands the chief executive's warrantless wiretapping power. Even immunity for telecommunications companies involved in the NSA scandal was only defeated (for now, that is) by a handful of courageous senators. Many controversial nominees, chief among them Attorney General Michael Mukasey, were confirmed despite the fact that a majority of Democrats were opposed. And Democrats conceded to Bush's imposed spending limits (though not his spending priorities), including on expanding SCHIP on which the vast majority in Congress and American people are in support and on an AMT patch that currently has no way of being paid for.
Congressional Democrats did however get passed into law several of their promised domestic bills this year (in fact, more than the Republicans when they took over in '95). They include an ethics/lobbying reform bill, a minimum wage increase, 9/11 commission security recommendations, higher mandatory fuel efficiency standards, the College Cost Reduction Act, and more. A handy chart of their major accomplishments can be found here.
Of course, much of their failures can be blamed on an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate that has forced a 60-vote hurdle on major bills at a record rate from previous Congresses (it is somewhat surprising their unity and support behind Bush, particularly on Iraq and SCHIP). President Bush has also vetoed or threatened to veto many bills. These facts will be central to Democratic campaigns next year.
But there has also been a lack of good leadership. War funding bills don't have to brought up for a vote at all, nor did a pro-immunity version of the FISA bill, for instance. Democratic promises to truly fight Bush have often wrung hollow as Democratic leaders seem to always blink in the expected game of chicken. Much of this has to do with the caucus splits among Democrats, but perhaps better leadership is needed to make it more unified. And many Democrats who have disappointed their progressive base with their votes may also face primary challengers, as some are already.
Congressional approval ratings are at incredible lows, but it should be noted that the approval rating of just Republicans in Congress is lower than that for Democrats and polls also show solid majorities still support Democrats remaining in charge of Congress after the 2008 elections. With one more session to go before the 2008 elections, Democrats will have a chance to improve their success rate and hopefully their stature with the people. If not, I fear the elections will be as good for Democrats as they hope. More importantly, we will not see the progress we truly need from our government right now.
The American people put their faith in Democrats in 2006, they will need results to do so again in 2008.