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.
In 2008, Democratic congressmen and women were thought of as less than people who made laws than they were as Superdelegates, the new word that was magically going to determine who the Democrats nominated for president, as every new member--just having been there for two years, a few of them--got to vote at the Democratic convention and were courted and tallied by the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns.
Republicans, meanwhile, raged on the House floor. In August of 2008, Republicans stayed in the House chamber as everyone else was gone for August recess, holding press conferences in the dark and tweeting about it and recording videos. Drill Here, Drill Now! they cried, pointing to expensive gas prices. John McCain, who had worked on a cap-and-trade bill with Joe Lieberman and stumped for cap-and-trade in May, was on the trail pushing for the GOP's "all-of-the-above" energy plan; Sarah Palin was saying Drill, Baby, Drill!
When the financial system collapsed, Democrats coalesced around the bailout plan proposed by President Bush's Treasury Department. Hank Paulson reportedly got down on one knee to woo Nancy Pelosi to vote for it, and she assented, as did her caucus and the Senate Democrats, too--weeks after Congress had bailout out AIG. The $700 billion financial bailout was born. As of mid-October 2010, $388 billion had been spent and $204 billion had been repaid.
Then came the election and President Obama. Congress passed a $787 billion stimulus, which included $288 billion in tax credits; $275 billion in contracts, grants, and loans; and $224 billion in entitlement spending. $561 billion has been spent as of today, according to Recovery.gov.
Democrats instituted credit card reforms, seeking to do away with fine-print they had deemed predatory. Democrats outlawed retroactive rate increases, rate increases during the first year, 45 days notice before rate increases with a chance for cardholders to opt out, no fees on interest-only balances, no fees for paying over the phone, contracts posted online, one free credit report per year in a language other than English. Democrats gave credit card companies nine months to comply; they, in turn, jacked up rates before the reforms kicked in. Democrats tried to move up the start-date two months to December 1, but Senate Republicans opposed that.
The two biggest pieces of legislation came under Obama, both recently: health care and financial reforms.
Democrats banded together to pass health care reform, which instated regional health exchanges for individuals who aren't covered through employers, subsidies to help poor and middle-class Americans afford insurance, and a requirement that everyone buy an insurance plan. The public option, as we all know, failed. Health care almost failed. Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan led the group of pro-life Democrats whose definition of federally funded abortions differed drastically from the view held by the party's sizeable pro-choice caucus; Pelosi and Obama won his support in the end, getting him to sign onto an agreement that the administration would issue guidelines telling insurance companies essentially: "We're serious--you can't use any of this subsidy money to pay for abortions."
Financial reform passed in July, seemingly a long time after the crash of the U.S. financial system, and it included a less robust Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection than Democrats had originally sought. Democrats expanded the government's authority to take over large, troubled banks (seeking an answer to "Too Big to Fail"), subjected derivatives trading to government oversight, and limited banks' ability to invest certain types of capital in hedge funds and private equity firms. Some popular provisions--including a requirement that banks spin off their derivatives trading operations and divest completely from hedge funds and private equity--were softened.
Democrats failed to pass cap and trade, another big item on the agenda. Speaker Pelosi wrangled enough votes to pass it by just three votes in June as House leaders waited to see if the Senate could muster enough votes to do the same. The Senate couldn't, and the cap-and-trade vote remains a huge liability for Democrats in conservative districts--even those who didn't vote for it--in today's midterms.
And now, here we are.
Over the past four years, congressional Democrats have managed to pass their fair share of big bills, most notably health care reform, financial reform, lobbing reforms, and the renewable fuels standard. Throw in the stimulus, and you've got a remarkable collection of progressive, and in some cases populist, legislation enacted under President Obama.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been regarded, over the past four years, as a successful party leader, able to whip her caucus into shape for the big votes when she needs to, bringing together an odd coalition ranging from ultra-liberals to legitimate conservatives.
After four years of (at times difficult) flow, Democrats' congressional majority is expected to ebb tonight. Whether the Democratic Congress remains intact in January is anybody's guess.