Let’s all be honest. Despite the slowness in the Senate, the 111th Congress has been one of the most active, hard working, and productive Congresses in American history, passing nation changing legislation that affects millions of Americans. In the past two years this Congress has boldly taken on health care, equal pay for equal work, financial reform, consumer protection, civil rights, and saving the economy. Its been a historic run and one certainly worth grading, so how does this Congress stack up to those of the past?
Let us start with civil and equal rights. Congress has made great strides in this area over the last two years. Just recently, Congress ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, ending the unfair practice of discharging homosexuals out of our armed forces just for being themselves. DADT ended the careers of thousands of soldiers, many of which served in critical areas such as linguistics. Now that DADT is over, these thousands can now return to the ranks and make our forces even stronger. Congress also passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which means that workers will receive fair pay regardless of race, gender, or age. People have fought for this legislation for a long time. Never again will a woman be paid less just because she is a woman. Never again will an older person be paid less just because they are a certain age. Both of these pieces of legislation are critical because they keep this nation’s ideal of equality alive. All in all, these strides are perhaps the biggest steps by Congress since the Civil Rights Act and Title IX.
Congress also made great strides in national security. I’ve already mentioned the ending of DADT, but the centerpiece of this Congress’ national security agenda is the START Treaty. Mirroring the Reagan Administration’s effort to work with Russia, President Obama and this Congress has passed a treaty that reduces overall stockpiles of nuclear weapons, thus reducing the number which could fall into the wrong hands. We will now be able to monitor these stockpiles and work with our Russian allies in the War on Terror and against threats like Iran and North Korea in a new spirit of international cooperation. This will improve the safety of Americans in the long term. Also of importance is the ending of the war in Iraq. By ending this war, President Obama can now focus on the terrorists by deploying troops to Afghanistan and defend us better from nations that hate us by having troops ready for action in other places in the world.
The above accomplishments would usually be enough for any Congress, but not this one. This Congress also pushed through education legislation. For years students have had to pay tuition debts that may be too difficult to pay off mostly because of interest rates that are too high. Well, not anymore. Student Loan Reform makes college more affordable for students and their families because the Federal government is now in control of those loans and have set lower rates than private banks ever did. Let’s face it, private banks care more about making money these days than they do about your financial future. The government is the good guy here. Only the government can offer these kinds of rates and sustain them over a long period of time. This stride in education is modestly comparable to the creation of the public school system in the 1950′s. And this move would also not be possible without the Department of Education. You can thank Jimmy Carter for that.
You would think that this Congress would be happy with that record, but it wasn’t enough for them. They also dealt with food safety. By passing the Food Safety Act, Americans can rest assured that the food they eat is safe from unwanted chemicals and bacteria. This act of Congress is a direct response to the salmonella outbreak found in contaminated eggs. Because Congress passed this legislation, situations like that will be prevented, as regulations on the food industry are tightened in a way not seen since Theodore Roosevelt signed the Food and Drug Act in 1906.
In addition to all of that, Congress also passed new consumer protection legislation and new rules governing Wall Street. By passing the Card Act, Congress is protecting consumers from unfair and misleading credit card company policies. Also of great importance is Wall Street Reform, which ends “too big to fail” and protects consumers from unfair banking and investment policies, and holds Wall Street accountable for its incompetence. These are not only the biggest consumer protections in history, but this bill also reinstates critical regulations and is only comparable to legislation signed by FDR.
President Obama and Congress also diversified the Supreme Court. By nominating and confirming Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the bench of the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court is now the most diverse court in history. Three seats are now held by women, the most in history. Kagan is Jewish. Sotomayor is Catholic and a Latina. This makes this court just as diverse as the nation and truly represents most Americans for the first time in America’s history.
This Congress also saved the nation’s economy in a way not seen since FDR lifted America from the ashes of the Great Depression. By passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the country was spared from a second Great Depression and millions of jobs were saved and created. The legislation pours unprecedented resources into rebuilding America’s infrastructure, developing new energy sources, saving the American auto industry, and preventing the failure of banks that would have wiped out 66% of American assets had those banks went under. The last great American infrastructure investment project was the Federal Highway Act signed by Eisenhower. This legislation has already created thousands of jobs in the energy sector, specifically clean energy jobs. New industries and manufacturing sectors such as nuclear power plants, lithium batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels have already been created and are still being developed. This legislation could also be considered one of the biggest environmental packages ever signed into law ranking it among legislation signed by Theodore Roosevelt, and legislation passed by the Democratic Congress via override under Nixon.
Speaking of environmental protection, Congress also passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act in 2009. This legislation adds 2 million acres of wilderness into protection, protects many miles of rivers and expands National Parks. Environmental legislation of this magnitude is comparable to legislation signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt. He would most certainly approve.
Democrats in Congress also managed to extend unemployment benefits for the jobless, and passed small business tax cuts. And in an act of sacrifice, Democrats in Congress passed tax cuts for the middle class at the cost of having to also provide billions in tax breaks to the wealthy. Democrats refused to sacrifice the middle class and gave in to Republican demands for tax cuts for the rich. It was an honorable sacrifice albeit one that could catch up and bite us later on.
But the greatest achievement of this Congress is health care. To reform this country’s broken health care system, lawmakers passed the Affordable Care Act, making it illegal for insurance companies to drop customers because they get sick or have a pre-existing condition. Being a woman is no longer considered a pre-existing condition. The act also creates more choice, insures better care, allows parents to keep their kids on their own plans until the age of 26, and lowers costs. This landmark legislation is comparable to the passage of Medicare and is just one piece of a series of health care legislation bills that began when John Adams signed into law an act “For the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen,” establishing the Marine Hospital Service. Congress also expanded SCHIP, adding 4 million children to the coverage. This ensures the health of our children and our nation for decades to come.
Congress even saw fit to regulate itself, by creating the Office of Congressional Ethics, a non-partisan, civilian operated body that conducts investigations into the actions and conduct of lawmakers. That makes this Congress one of the most honest and transparent in American history.
Two years ago, Republicans made it clear that they would seek to block and obstruct nearly any and every bill that came to the floor of Congress. However, the Democrats in control worked hard and long and managed to turn this session of Congress into one of the most successful two years in American history. It was frustrating at times and there were some disappointments such as the Dream Act and the Clean Energy bill and the previously mentioned tax cuts for the wealthy, but this Congress did more for the American people in two years, than Republicans did when they controlled Congress for six years under George W. Bush.
Overall, I would give a grade of A- to the 111th Congress. They have matched many previous feats of past Congresses and have given new meaning to working hard on behalf of the American people. But these pieces of legislation require defending. Republicans have already promised to reverse everything that the 111th Congress has achieved. They intend on defunding everything, which would effectively destroy all of the progress made over the last two years. With that said, I dare Republicans to do better than this Congress if they can. But I doubt it. The 111th sought progress and actually did something, the 112th will seek destruction while doing nothing to help the people. The 111th Congress is a model of what every Congress should be.