With the lesser-known candidates dropping out like flies and the top-tier contenders pulling no punches, it’s clearly election season, and the horserace is on. Although the unpredictability of the presidential elections injects that contest with excitement, 2008 will also determine the make-up of the next Congress. And the voters are optimistically enthused by our friends in the legislative branch… right?
Okay, not really. The American people truly hate Congress. With a 24.7 percent approval rating, they’re polling almost 10 points below President Bush. Hell, those numbers land them in Charles Manson territory. But this isn’t really a surprise: When the Democrat-controlled Congress was only days into its first session, the official Republican talking point was to label the Democrat legislature as a “Do-Nothing Congress.” Because large swaths of the media appear allergic to reporting actual facts and because they love memorable catchphrases, they ran the story. However, it was Republican obstructionism in the Senate that sank legislation for a timed withdrawal from Iraq, and George Bush who used his veto pen to kill popular bills like the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill that would have expanded health care for children from middle income families. The media has allowed Republicans to prevent well-liked legislation from becoming law, and in turn, allowed them to get away with blaming Democrats in congress for not getting anything done.
Since in the Senate 60 votes are needed to bring “cloture” to a bill – a fancy name for a vote on a piece of legislation – the Republican Senate minority has been able to filibuster a significant number of popular bills from receiving an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. In fact, the use of the filibuster has been so prevalent that in just the first year of the Congress’ two-year term, Republican lawmakers have managed to break previous obstructionist record, with 62 pieces of legislation prevented from being voted on, according to the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive think tank. At this rate, Senate Republicans are on track to filibuster 124 pieces of legislation by the end of their term, more than doubling previous uses of the parliamentary tactic.
However, even with GOP hindrance of the Democrat’s agenda, the Democratic Party has actually been able to pass more of their political platform into law in 2007 than the Republicans did in 1995 – the year the GOP last took over the congress. Last year, the Democrats managed to raise the minimum wage, implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and pass the College Cost Reduction Act, among other legislation on their agenda. They also played the central role in forcing the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s morally corrupt and laughably incompetent Attorney General. But of course, the storyline of a “Do-Something-Congress,” despite Republican road blocking through senatorial devices, hardly makes for an attention grabbing TV sound bite. Moreover, with the media’s allergy to reporting actual facts and the whatnot, voters continue to be bombarded with the “Do Nothing Congress” narrative.
None of this is to say that there isn’t sufficient justification for attacking the Democrats in Congress. There were several instances last year when the Democrats acquiesced to the George Bush agenda on torture and domestic spying, and they have certainly not ended the war in Iraq. But that has been in spite of Democratic attempts, not because of Democrats’ lack of trying. The fact is that unless the Democrats are willing to cutoff military funding – a suggestion met harshly by the American public – there isn’t much that can be done to end the occupation of Iraq, short of a change of heart by the president. The American system of government has a natural tendency towards gridlock – which can be exploited by the minority in congress. And it’s happened. So if not being able to end the war does indeed make the legislature a “Do Nothing Congress,” it isn’t because of the Democrats. It’s despite them.