For congressional Democrats, the first session of the 110th Congress offered a sobering lesson in the practical limits of majority control. Democrats delivered part of what they had promised to the voters who returned them to power last November and recorded some significant achievements. But more often, Democrats found their legislative plans stymied - first by Senate Republicans' willingness to filibuster any proposal with which they disagreed, then by the president's newfound zeal to exercise his veto power. The scorecard, in the end, is disappointingly mixed. Still, Democrats are more to blame for overpromising than for failing to deliver; their triumphant promises of January were never realistic. Given the slenderest of Senate majorities and the willingness of the minority to wield the filibuster with unprecedented frequency, Democrats' maneuvering room was dramatically limited.
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On the plus side of the legislative ledger, President Bush signed an energy bill this week that will raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks for the first time in 32 years, to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That is a significant achievement, albeit one that could have been even greater had Republicans not blocked efforts to include new requirements for boosting use of renewable sources of energy and to eliminate tax breaks for oil companies.
Likewise, Democrats were able to secure the first increase in the minimum wage in nine years and the largest expansion of college aid since the GI bill, cutting interest rates on subsidized student loans and increasing the maximum Pell grant. They passed an important lobbying and ethics reform bill that will shine light on the bundles of campaign cash delivered by registered lobbyists and clamped down on lawmakers' ability to accept meals, travel and entertainment from lobbyists and those who employ them.
The keenest Democratic disappointment - failing to force the president to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq - is no disappointment to us. Although unhappiness with the war in Iraq helped propel Democrats to victory, in the end President Bush was able to secure continuing funding for the war with no strings attached. Of far more concern: Democrats could not overcome presidential vetoes of bills providing for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research or expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The children's health issue deserves another try next year; the extension that Congress adopted jeopardizes existing coverage for some children and makes it difficult for states to move forward with planned expansions of coverage.
Democrats spent much of the session congratulating themselves, appropriately so, for reinstating pay-as-you-go rules requiring tax cuts or increases in mandatory spending to be paid for with offsetting tax increases or spending cuts.
In the end, however, Democrats capitulated to a Republican refusal to pay for the $50 billion, one-year patch applied to the alternative minimum tax. The budget process was nearly as unattractive as ever, with a host of overdue spending bills wrapped into a giant package passed in the final hours of the session.
Of most concern are the serious issues that remain unaddressed - and that aren't likely to be taken up next year, either. An overhaul of the nation's failed immigration policy fell victim to ugly politics, despite the support of the president. Entitlement reform - in particular a response to the looming Social Security shortfall - never got off the ground, the victim of distrust and intransigence on both sides. Prospects next year for reauthorizing the president's signature education program, No Child Left Behind, look dim.
The year before a presidential election is rarely a fertile moment for lawmaking; the poisonous level of partisanship in both houses makes that even more unlikely. Republicans seem to have concluded that their electoral hopes lie in blocking Democrats from ringing up any achievements. For their part, House Democrats have conveniently forgotten their pledges to treat the minority with more fairness than they were accorded when Republicans had control.
Yet the new year will dawn with issues of enormous importance on the congressional agenda. In addition to those mentioned above, we would note the worthwhile proposal by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., and John W. Warner, R-Va., to adopt a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. Lawmakers and the president can continue to bicker and elbow for advantage until the next election rolls around - or they can gamble that they have more to gain with a disgusted electorate by cooperating and getting something done.