Sunday, August 26, 2007

New Congress is King of Oversight

Thomas Mann, Molly Reynolds, and Peter Hoey have an interesting article in today's New York Times on the 110th Congress' comparative legislative productivity. Here's the introduction:

JUST before Congress adjourned for its August recess, Democrats engaged in a flurry of legislative activity, while Republicans complained about a “do-nothing” Congress’s meager policy accomplishments. Deep partisan differences, narrow majorities and a Republican in the White House have frustrated Democratic ambitions and fueled a toxic atmosphere in both chambers of Congress. The public’s low approval ratings reflect broad discontent with the direction of the country but also displeasure with Congress for failing to reverse course on Iraq and for continuing the bitter partisan warfare.

But has this really been a do-nothing Congress? The circumstances are similar to those in 1995, when a new Republican majority in both houses took office under a Democratic president. So perhaps the best question to ask is, how is this 110th Congress doing compared with the 104th Congress, in 1995?
The authors make the case that the new Democratic congressional majority has produced a more substantive legislative record than did the Republicans after 1994:

The new Congress has enacted a far-reaching lobbying and ethics reform bill, an increase in the minimum wage, recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, foreign investment rules and a competitiveness package, and has embedded a number of major initiatives and new priorities in continuing and supplemental spending bills. Democrats also made headway on energy, children’s health insurance, college student loans, Head Start, drug safety and a farm bill — though much of this awaits action in the Senate or in conference and faces a possible veto.
The tale of the tape is what I find interesting, however. Be sure to click here for the article's informative graphic, which includes a nice table of comparative statistics.

One of the biggest achievements of the new Congress is to ramp up the level of legislative oversight of the executive branch. While some have argued that Congress in recent years has been too deferential to the presidency (including Mann himself), the Democrats are probably less worried about the proper functioning of the separation of powers than they are about punishing Republicans for their ambitious, highly-partisan (even brazen) agenda of recent years.

Here's a nugget from the article:

Democratic promises to restore civility and regular parliamentary procedure by allowing the minority party a larger role in deliberations have foundered. The number of restrictive rules for debate has increased, and the conference process has been short-circuited on various occasions.
I've yet to see any sweeping legislative successes under the Democrats - for example, nothing as monumental as the Republican-led Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Pelosi, Reid, and the Democrats appear in disarray over Iraq, and the administration's steadfast resolve on the war has kept the Republian Party's priorities at the top of the policy agenda.

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