Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Democrats Last Hurrah

As the 111th Congress closed out its contentious two year span with a furious flurry of last minute legislative activity last week, Democrats and Republicans differed sharply over whether it had been a success or a failure. Obama proclaimed it to be a personal victory for himself, and declared the lame duck session to be, "the most productive post-election period we've had in decades." He also described the outgoing, Democrat-controlled Congress as "the most productive two years that we've had in generations."

However, the judgement of the voters on that question was quite different. It was made quite clear by the outcome of the November midterm election. They punished the Democrats in the voting booth for pursuing their own narrowly partisan liberal interests at the cost of the nation’s best interests over the past two years.


As far as voters were concerned, the final narrow liberal agenda measures the Democrats pushed through during the hectic post-election lame duck session was merely more of the same, the low-hanging legislative fruit that remained to be plucked before they lost their controlling majority in the House.


The lame duck legislators passed a repeal of the military’s personnel policies, the ratification of a renewal of the expired START nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, and a measure to provide medical care for sickened 9/11 rescue workers, all enjoyed some measure of bipartisan support. Furthermore, none of them were directly relevant to the core political dispute between Republicans and Democrats, which had to do with increasing or reducing the size, intrusiveness and expense of the federal government.


In fact, the only reason Republicans contested the passage of these bills was because they were angered by Democrat tactics, trying to use the time crunch as an excuse to pass much more partisan legislative measures without proper legislative review and debate of their provisions.


Thus, conservative analysts concluded that boasts by Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the outgoing Congress was “by far the most productive Congress in American history,” were grossly exaggerated.




Instead, the Republicans and conservatives pointed to the measures that the liberals lost or were forced to abandon in the final days of the lame duck session. They were killed by determined and united Republican opposition, reflecting the message which the voters had sent in November. The so-called “Dream Act,” which would have extended the amnesty to children of illegal aliens was soundly defeated. The Democrats were also forced to withdraw a pork-laden $1.2 trillion spending bill, which they tried to push through after failing to perform their basic legislative responsibility over the past year. For the first time in recent memory, the outgoing Congress failed to pass any of the 12 spending bills required to fund the operations of the federal government for fiscal year 2011, which started in October.


Incoming House Speaker John Boehner summed up the Republican view of the past two years in Washington, when he said that, “Congress and the administration simply failed to listen to the American people. Time and time again, [the American people] yelled ‘stop,’ but the folks running Washington barreled ahead with a job-killing agenda our nation didn’t want or need.”




The 111th Congress passed more major bills supporting the liberal objectives of big spending, highly taxed and regulated welfare-state government than any other Congress since the heyday of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative 45 years ago. Over the past two years, Democrats pushed a broad spectrum of measures designed to reverse three decades of deregulation that began under President Ronald Reagan.


Obama’s first big accomplishment just a few weeks after his inauguration was the passage in late February 2009 of an $814 billion stimulus bill. The bill was promoted as a measure designed to quickly create new jobs by funding shovel-ready infrastructure. Almost two years later, however, much of that infrastructure money has still not been spent. Most of the money in the bill actually went to pay for increased welfare benefits, and to keep hundreds of thousands of members of the public employee unions on the payrolls of near bankrupt states across the country which could no longer afford to keep them. Coincidentally, these are the same unions which give millions of dollars during each election cycle to Democrat candidates, and also provide the local campaign workers for Democrat political machines across the country.


Voters, already furious at the government bailouts of the Wall Street firms which had triggered the financial crisis that caused the recession, realized that the stubbornly high national unemployment numbers meant that their elected officials had tricked. them again. Their protests were still ignored by the Democrats who were in complete control of Washington.




Instead of turning their attention to the true crisis, a staggering national economy and a critical shortage of jobs, Democrats plunged ahead toward their ideological goal, pushing through a health care reform bill designed to lay the foundation for a government takeover of the national health care system.


Angry voters turned out by the thousands at town hall meetings across the country in the summer of 2009 to tell their elected officials that they did not want Obamacare, and feared its consequences. But again, the elected Democrats refused to listen to their constituents, and proceeded to ram the legislation through Congress this past March, without a single Republican vote in its favor.


Two years after the start of the subprime mortgage meltdown that set the stage for the near-collapse of the financial system that led to the failure of the Lehman Brothers investment bank and mortgage giant Washington Mutual, Congress passed a law intended to halt financial abuses that almost thrust the whole world into financial chaos. But the Democrat-supported measure failed to deliver the reforms promised. It merely added another layer of government regulation to the financial system, while leaving in place the root cause of the massive bailouts, US financial firms considered “too big to fail.” Furthermore, while shielding the Wall Street giants from the consequences of their greed, the new regulations still leave millions of consumers and small businesses unable to qualify for mortgage loans and lines of credit with reasonable terms.




Almost lost in the shuffle was a myriad of new taxes and regulatory provisions, many of them hidden in the 2,000 page Obamacare law, imposing costly new burdens on US businesses and high income taxpayers. According to Ethan Harris, a research economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Global Research, the scope of the regulations approved since Obama took office has made US businesses hesitant to expand and hire new workers. “Business is overwhelmed,” said Harris.


Yet the Obama White House and congressional Democrats remained determined to keep ignoring the desires of the voters, in order to push forward with their agenda.


Finally, in November, the voters sent the Democrats a message they could not ignore. Their agenda was soundly rejected at the ballot box. With a historic pickup of 63 seats in House and six in the Senate, Republicans were given majority control of the lower chamber and considerably more influence in the new Senate.




The national political tide had turned against President Obama and his party, which he finally acknowledged both verbally, by admitting the day after the election that they had suffered a “shellacking” at the hands of the voters, and more substantively, by cutting a comprehensive tax compromise with the Republicans. In response to howls of protest by his own liberal supporters in the House, both at the substance of the compromise, and at having been shut out of the negotiating process, Obama replied that he had no choice but to make the best deal he could in light of the new political realities in Washington. He warned fellow Democrats against continuing their losing battle to raise taxes on the rich that would have resulted in a disastrous end-of-the- year across the board tax increase.


Instead, the historic compromise that Obama reached with congressional Republicans gave the GOP victories on two crucial tax cut issues, a two year extension of all the Bush tax cuts, including those for high income earners, and a drastically scaled back federal estate tax. In addition, the compromise, which was negotiated in secret by Vice President Joe Biden and Republican congressional leaders, radically transformed opinion and expectations in Washington and the world of media punditry.


Once the darling of the liberal pundits and the triumphal wunderkind of Washington, overnight, Obama began being portrayed by the liberal media as a defeated and increasingly isolated president, fighting to maintain his relevance during the last two years of his first, and quite likely last term in the White House.




Just as media pronouncements of his political invincibility upon first entering the White House were grossly exaggerated, so too were recent pronouncements of his political demise. Obama was clearly down, but he was not out. Far from it.


He understood that he had to adjust to the new political realities as he explained to disappointed liberal followers after agreeing to the tax compromise, because major electoral defeats, like the one the Democrats suffered in November, have consequences.


Since cutting the tax compromise, Obama has shown that he is a political force to be reckoned with. His success in achieving many of his political goals during the lame duck session has given Obama and his supporters hope that he can find a way to come back in time to win re-election in 2012.


Obama’s first task was to quell the angry revolt within the ranks of his own party, particularly its liberal wing, at the compromise he cut with the Republicans. That didn’t take long. The political logic of what Obama did, cutting the best deal he could with opponents from a weakened political position against a rapidly approaching year-end tax hike deadline, soon broke through the Democrats’ anger. Eventually, most of them grudgingly accepted what he had done and ratified it with their votes. Senate Democrats were the first to bow to political reality, joining Republicans to pass the tax compromise by 81-19, the most lopsided Senate victory for a controversial piece of legislation in many years.




In the face of that strong endorsement, much of the angriest Democrat opposition to the compromise in the House quickly crumbled. A few days later, the House, too passed the measure, after a liberal-backed amendment to alter the terms of the inheritance tax proposal, the part of the compromise that many Democrats were most angry about, failed by a 233-194 margin. Moments later, the final House vote was taken on the whole compromise tax package, and it won easily, by a 277-148 margin. The ayes included 112, or about half of the House Democrats, and a large majority of the Republicans.


The White House bill signing ceremony held the next day, had a curiously bittersweet and anti-climactic feel about it. Perhaps the most notable aspect was the absence of most Democratic congressional leaders. It bespoke, more than words, the rift which has opened between the president and the leaders of his party, and most important of all, a lack of mutual trust.


Gone, too was the vitriol which had spewed from Obama against critics on the left and right in the days immediately following the announcement of the agreement. There were no more angry denunciations of “sanctimonious” liberals who were willing to sacrifice the interests of the nation for the sake of winning a political battle, or of Republican “hostage takers,” who were willing to go to any legislative lengths to prevent a tax increase on the wealthy.


While the leadership of both parties eventually came together to support the legislation and push it through despite determined opposition within segments of both parties, those bitter comments by Obama will not soon be forgotten, and are likely to be recalled over the next two years as Obama seeks to govern in partnership with a divided Congress, and a strengthened and invigorated Republican opposition.




What bothered House and Senate Democrats most was the fact that they were cut out of the negotiations in which the terms of the tax compromise were finalized, and were then presented with the deal as a fait accompli, with no changes allowed.


Their great fear is that this will set a pattern for the next two years, as Obama deals directly with Republican leaders to cut deals on every major issue that Congress must resolve.


But House Democrats in particular will have to get used to that. Once the new Congress is seated, Obama will have to deal with incoming Republican Speaker, John Boehner, to get any new legislation through Congress, and House Democrats will be left in the position that minority Republican House members were in over the past four years of Democrat control of the chamber; on the outside looking in.


Pelosi’s devotion to her extreme liberal agenda over the past two years has contributed to Obama’s problems, and he is unlikely to let her keep managing the Democrats’ legislative agenda as the next presidential campaign begins.




In the meantime, Obama seems to be trying to follow the pattern set by Bill Clinton after he led the Democrats to a serious midterm election defeat in 1994, and then succeeded in governing by cutting compromises on one issue after another with Republicans.


But there is a crucial difference between the two Democrat presidents. Clinton ran for president as a “New Democrat,” acknowledging that the traditional liberal Democrat platform no longer commanded the support of American voters. By cutting successful compromises with the Republicans on welfare reform, taxes and other issues after the ‘94 election, Clinton was only doing what he had always said he would do.


Clinton’s comeback was based on the strategy formulated for him by Dick Morris called “triangulation.” After his 1994 rebuff, Clinton was able to successfully position himself between conservative Republicans in Congress and the liberals in his own party. He was then able to win re-election in 1996 based upon what he had accomplished with those compromises without alienating his Democrat base. But because Obama has been so closely tied to a liberal agenda, it will be much more difficult for him to do that.




John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former senior House aide, said Obama cannot afford to alienate his liberal base repeatedly without risking a primary opponent in 2012. “It is quite obvious that he showed some political ruthlessness here. He cares little about the concerns of House Democrats. If they stand in his way, he will trample over them at the drop of a hat. While that might be politically expedient now, it could prove to be his downfall should he need them later on in his presidency,” Feehery said.


For now, however, Obama’s popularity among self-described liberal voters has not suffered significantly because of the tax deal he cut with the Republicans. According to a recent national opinion poll, the tax agreement enjoys 2-1 public approval among liberals, moderates and conservatives.


Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who disliked the tax deal, said the compromise would benefit Obama politically.


“I didn’t agree with the tax bill, but I think it probably did the president a lot of good,” he said. “He is seen as somebody in charge and willing to do things that have to be done, in his view. I think . . . it was a win for him.”


Obama’s approval ratings, however, did not rise as the tax fight has played out in Congress. Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, said Obama squandered an opportunity to boost his personal standing by the bitter way he characterized GOP leaders even as he announced his agreement to the compromise.


“He is trying to run back to the middle but he sabotaged the political value of the tax compromise when he attacked Republicans as ‘hostage takers’ and condemned the agreement as he embraced it. The president gets no credit for moving to the middle when he confesses he really didn’t want to. Instead he looks smaller and more political.”




Triangulation is a dirty word among many Democrat liberals today, which is why White House officials insist that it is not Obama’s current goal. Obama apparently believes that he can retain his liberal credentials and credibility with his voter base, while cutting more deals with the Republicans, as long as he doesn’t publicly admit what he is doing.


Obama might have been able to sell this approach if he had followed it from the first day that he entered the White House. After all, he campaigned for president on a promise to end the bitter partisanship in Washington and bring Republicans and Democrats together on common ground. But after almost two years of doing just the opposite, by pushing an extreme liberal agenda and shutting Republicans out of the governing process, it may be difficult for Obama to win the trust he will need to make this approach work over the next two years.


As for liberal Democrats, they made little effort to hide their feelings that Obama had betrayed their shared principles when he cut the tax deal and they have now retired to quietly nurse their wounded pride. It will be interesting to watch him mend his fences with them over the next two years while simultaneously pursuing more compromises with the Republicans.




Democrats have nobody but themselves to blame for the difficult situation they faced in the lame duck session. It was their choice to pursue grand left wing ideological objectives, like the passage of Obamacare, rather than use their overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress to easily pass the legislation they had to rush to finish in the lame duck session, before they lost control over the House.


For most of 2009, the Democrats had the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate they needed to pass any legislation they wanted and send it to Obama to sign into law. They could have killed the Bush tax cuts for the top income brackets, while making the lower bracket cuts permanent. They could have passed any kind of estate tax they wanted. They could have passed the “Dream Act” immigration reform bill, and many other items on their liberal wish list. Now they will have to wait at least until after the 2012 election, because they will have no chance to pass those measures in the new Republican-controlled House.


Instead of lavishing praise on Obama for the ratification of the START arms control treaty with Russia, and the repeal of the military’s moral standard, the media pundits should be asking the question: Why did he and the Democrats leave it all for the last possible minute?




The biggest lost opportunity of all for the Democrats was the failure to pass any appropriations bill for the 2011 fiscal year. Republicans refused to be pressured into passing a huge, omnibus spending bill during the lame duck session, because congressional Democrat leaders didn’t give them adequate time to read its 1,924 pages, let alone debate its provisions. They also rebelled against its $1.2 trillion cost and the inclusion of nearly 7,000 “earmarks,” including many wasteful pork-barrel spending projects inserted at the specific request of individual lawmakers. Earmarks were a major issue in the midterm election, and voters clearly rejected them.


Now, all government spending decisions for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year will be decided by the incoming Congress. The newly elected Tea Party Republicans and the GOP leadership will insist upon cutting many of the wasteful Democrat big spending projects in the current draft before agreeing to pass the final budget.




There is a great historic irony in the fact that so many crucial decisions were left to be decided by a lame duck session of a Congress which had already been repudiated by the voters.


In 1933, when this country ratified the 20th amendment to the US constitution, its authors thought that they had killed off lame duck congressional sessions.


But, thanks to a gaping hole in the amendment’s language, modern Congresses have not only held many lame duck sessions, they have used them to make some of their most memorable votes.


The trouble with lame duck sessions began in 1801, when the outgoing Federalists used their last days in power to help appoint a bunch of judges. The issue did not surface again for more than a century, until 1922, when President Warren Harding and the lame-duck Republicans tried to ram through unpopular legislation after their defeats at the polls.


Opponents at that time said that the lame duck session was un-democratic: It seemed to violate the Washington rule that “elections have consequences.” A decade later, when Congress passed – and the states ratified – the 20th Amendment, lawmakers thought they were ending lame-duck Congresses forever. But the amendment didn’t actually say that. Its text only moved Congress’s end date from March back to early January (it also shifted the president’s inauguration from March to January 20).


At that time, historians say, nobody thought that legislators from across the country would bother to journey back to Washington to meet for a few weeks as winter came on.


“The big mistake of the crafters of the 20th Amendment was that they didn’t really anticipate airplane travel,” said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale University law professor. “It takes a lot of time to go from a district in Texas by train to Washington, D.C. Who’s going to schlep there?”


But as travel by airplane made attendance at lame duck sessions more practical, they became a more common feature of the Washington legislative calendar.


In 1998, Republicans came back after losing seats in the House, and voted to impeach President Bill Clinton.


Ackerman, at the time, criticized them: He said this was against the spirit of the 20th amendment.


“At that time, of course, Republicans were saying, ‘This is ridiculous!’ ” Ackerman said. This year, he said, he’s been much more in demand: “Now, they’re calling to see if I’d come down for press conferences.”


The Washington Post contributed to this story




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