After Republicans disgracefully bowed out of power at the tail end of President Bush's White House tenure, the new members gathered for the first time in January 2007 to coronate Nancy Pelosi as the first female House speaker in the history of the country. This was two years, of course, before the U.S. elected its first black president, and the historic nature of the event was not lost on anyone: Pelosi became the highest ranking woman to hold office in the U.S. government, ever, at a moment of broad-based changes in what people thought about where the country should be headed.
That was the exuberant moment at which Democrats took power for what could be a short-lived majority, if it ends today in a Republican takeover as it's predicted to.
The significance of the Democratic House majority can't be understood without this context: It's a group of new Democratic lawmakers who won in areas the party hadn't held in at least a decade, and in some cases a lot longer. Western North Carolina. Southeastern Arizona. Southwestern Indiana. They're pro life and pro gun, many of them, almost all still there, even more having entered in 2008. The coalition is broad. The conservative Blue Dog Democrats skyrocketed in size over those two election cycles.
So keep that in mind when considering what the Democrats accomplished.
First, they did their damnedest to make Republicans look bad, riding high on the crushing defeat that saw the nation's popularity swing wildly in the Democrats' favor, with all-time-low approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican legislature.
They saw no need to bargain up-front with President Bush, who carried the lowest numbers since President Nixon. Without a tremendous amount of difficulty, they passed bills he would have to veto. And Bush, on his way out, saw no reason to compromise, either. It made for a perfect storm of head-butting.
Two months into their first session in power, Democrats passed an Iraq-war funding bill that included a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, which President Bush rejected out of hand. That set the tone for the rest of the 110th Congress, as Democrats picked this fight early on. They pushed a hard agenda of Iraq withdrawal, publicly attacked Bush's vetoes and made hay about the continued U.S. presence in Iraq that had, along with GOP ethics scandals, handed Democrats the House majority the previous November. Bush stubbornly opposed conditions for the U.S. presence there, Democrats said.
They pursued a $35 billion expansion of children's health care--adding 5.7 percent to the federal government's non-defense health care spending in the previous year--and as President Bush threatened to veto such a beefy version of the bill, Pelosi & co. passed it anyway twice, forcing Bush to veto it both times. When he rejected it in October 2007, his approval rating had hit 29 percent in Zogby/Reuters polling and average 33 percent over the quarter according to Gallup, and here he was, refusing to sign health care for children. Democrats reveled in it. Democrats sought and failed to override his veto. President Obama would eventually sign a $33 billion expansion two weeks after taking office.
Pledging to drain the GOP "swamp," the New Democratic Congress passed lobbying reforms as one of their first initiatives. Hailed as the most significant reforms in a decade, Democrats banned lawmakers and staff from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists, required more disclosure of lobbying activities, and instituted a one-year "cooling-off period" to keep members from exiting Congress and immediately registering as federal lobbyists. Among other things, this led to some poor attendance in box seats at the new Nationals Stadium. One lobbyist griped in the months following the new law that he couldn't buy coffee for a staffer at Starbucks without running into compliance problems. President Bush singed off on the changes.
They passed energy reform: in December of 2007, Democrats passed an energy bill that raised fuel-economy standards (requiring automakers to produce fleets by 2020 that average 35 miles per gallon) and mandated the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. Bush signed it, but it was somewhat of a disappointment: Pelosi and fellow environmentalists failed to include subsidies for alternative energy and requirements that electricity come from more renewable sources.
They sought to hold the Bush administration's feet to the fire for its lack of transparency. The Judiciary Committees and the House Oversight Committee repeatedly dogged the Bush administration, wrangling over subpoenas for both documents and people (including Karl Rove).
The Judiciary Committees grilled Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, over the unexplained firings of U.S. attorneys. After the public show of hours-long hearings, Democrats won a public consensus that Gonzales had politicized the Department of Justice, and he resigned.
Times were rolling high with Democrats in charge, and then the presidential election year hit, and everything slowed down.