Congress Has Time to Accomplish Even More Than It Has

Congress returns from its spring hiatus with a lot on its plate. Many pundits have speculated that after the ordeal, and passage of health care reform, Congress is ready to mail it in for the rest of the year, doing as little as possible. I disagree.

To be sure, the potential agenda is exceptionally heavy, the time is relatively short, the election looms, and majority Members are very nervous and more than a little fatigued. But I think that passage of health care reform will not be viewed as a valedictory statement by the 111th Congress, but a springboard to more activity and more enactments--that Democrats in Congress, rather than shrinking from doing more even as public anger at Congress remains at record highs, will see more accomplishment as the best route to minimizing electoral damage.

The path to productivity has been complicated by the impending Supreme Court vacancy. Even if there is limited controversy, a Supreme Court nomination always soaks up a substantial amount of time, attention and energy for the Senate. In this day and age, it is unlikely that any nominee, even if he or she has impeccable credentials and no ethical issues, will escape without lengthy hearings and some fireworks; consider the fact that some conservatives are already raising questions about Elena Kagan, who surely fits in the impeccable credentials category and is no fiery ideologue.

Unless there is a meltdown in the Senate over a nominee, combined with a lengthy filibuster, there is still ample time for both chambers to grapple with and pass a lot of significant legislation.

But unless there is a meltdown in the Senate over a nominee, combined with a lengthy filibuster, there is still ample time for both chambers to grapple with and pass a lot of significant legislation. It will start with the financial services regulatory reform pending in the Senate. The drive to get a bill enacted is very strong, in part because it would be the crowning achievement for Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a fitting cap to a distinguished Senate career.

The obstacles, though, are many, starting with serious substantive issues surrounding limits on leverage, how much the law builds in rules of conduct vs. guidelines with regulator discretion, how much to regulate derivatives, and the strength and location of a consumer protection entity. Then there are political questions: Can the Senate find a way to return to some bipartisan understanding on the bill, something that on the surface collapsed before the break when Banking Committee Democrats moved forward on a bill without their GOP counterparts; if not, can the Senate avoid a filibuster and 41 Republican votes to sustain it?

The odds remain strong, in my view, that these obstacles can be overcome (though I am not sure they will lead to an ideal bill). Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), whom I believe genuinely wants a good bill enacted and has bargained in good faith with Dodd, fears that Democrats can prevail in a showdown over a filibuster; this is not a great time for a party to unite to oppose taking on Wall Street fat cats and trying to avoid another financial nightmare. But there is still a real chance that such a showdown can be avoided or ameliorated; there is time to work out some accommodations to provide at least some bipartisan support for a Senate bill. The conference will not be a piece of cake, but it should provide ample room for compromise.

Congress is also poised to take up campaign finance reform, a fix in the terrible Citizens United Supreme Court decision that took a meat ax to a hundred years of law and tradition and that is viewed with disapproval by 80 percent of Americans. For Republicans who criticized Democrats for enacting a health care reform bill because it lacked majority support in the country, surely the clear views of four-fifths of Americans about Citizens United will move them to support a bill to reduce its worst effects. Or not. But I believe there will be enough Republicans in the Senate who have supported reform in the past to make any filibuster of a Citizens United fix unsuccessful.

There are other serious priorities on the table as well. I expect at least one more jobs bill, perhaps including the idea of incentives for job sharing that I mentioned in an earlier column; an education bill reforming No Child Left Behind and embodying many of the reforms suggested by Education Secretary Arne Duncan; and a mining bill to amend the law to prevent more tragedies like the Massey Energy Co. disaster in West Virginia.

After that comes the tougher part. Climate change legislation is less likely but not impossible. The president's initiative on off-shore drilling, along with his earlier commitment on nuclear power, opened the door for a more restrained Senate compromise, regulating utilities but avoiding a larger cap-and-trade regimen. Give it a 30 percent to 35 percent chance of passage.

Events may derail some of these priorities, and the Senate might get bogged down again with multiple filibusters and delay tactics, making a robust agenda impossible. But there is a pretty good chance that an already remarkably productive Congress could add a lot more to its impressive record.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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