The Economic Legacy of the 111th Congress

The 111th Congress began with a bang, an $800 billion shot of adrenaline into an ailing recovery that was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. It ends, at the ballot box if not on the Capitol, tonight, with Americans expected to deliver a knockout blow to the Democrat majority in the House, and perhaps the Senate.

There are two competing visions for the economic legacy of the 111th Congress, during which time Democrats controlled about 60 percent of the seats in both the House and Senate and voted for nearly every major bill over unanimous GOP objections. One vision, drowned by the red tide of impending Republican victories, would hold that this was one of the most productive Congresses in recent history. The other responds that it has been one of the most destructive Congresses in recent memory.

The first vision points to the $800 billion Recovery Act, the first bill of a new Congress, which saved hundreds of thousands of state jobs, gave 95 percent of Americans a tax break, and returned the economy to growth mere months after its passage. It holds up the health care bill as a landmark piece of both social justice and fiscal responsibility -- a law that not only provides health care for 40 million additional Americans by the end of this decade; but also reforms regulations, protects consumers from crooked or canceled health coverage, and builds the foundation for cost-savings reforms in the next decade. It hails the passage of credit card reform and financial reform, especially for the creation of a new body dedicated to protecting consumers from predatory lending and exotic financial products with minuscule script designed to squeeze money from struggling families. In short, Congress saved the economy, passed health care reform to protect millions of lives and save a trillion dollars, and reformed the industry that nearly killed the economy, all in two years work, all over an obstructionist minority. And now, it's about to lose to that minority.

But there is another interpretation of the last two years, shared by most likely voters (we'll find out about actual voters later tonight), that sees the 111th Congress as reckless and destructive. It says the stimulus was not a life preserver, but an anchor that ties nearly a trillion dollars in debt to Americans while failing to lift employment. It says the health care overhaul extends a broken system, covering Americans with coverage we can't afford rather than reform that coverage in the first place. It says financial reform does nothing but draw hopscotch lines on the ground that big banks will easily pass through, while consumer reforms will only make it more expensive to be a consumer. It short, Congress spent trillions to keep bad things the way they are (like state spending and health care fundamentals) while creating new rules to make bad things on Wall Street even worse ... oh yeah, while unemployment touches 10 percent and stays there for more than a year. Is it any wonder we're talking blowout?

Here's where there is no debate: The 111th Congress was a "do-something" Congress, as Ezra Klein noted. But productivity isn't popularity, especially when its against the backdrop of a historically deep recession and weak recovery. History has decades to judge the 111th Congress, but voters don't have time to wait. Barring a Democratic miracle, America is ready the punish the party that governed with a lonely majority.