Democratic voters frustrated with the legislative pace of 2009 might want to look away: This year, many experts are predicting, the fragile economy and looming elections will likely make it even tougher for party leaders to make good on their many campaign promises.
Proposals taking on climate change, immigration reform, the foreclosure crisis, and bank regulatory reform all remain high on the Democrats’ legislative wish-list. But the combination of heightened unemployment and thorny mid-term elections will make it more difficult, in 2010, to unite Democrats behind those proposals, for fear the votes will haunt moderates on the campaign trail.
[Congress1]Although Congress is on the brink of passing the most sweeping health-care reforms in four decades — representing both the Democrats’ top domestic priority and a major victory for party leaders — most of those changes won’t take effect for several years. As a result, many experts anticipate that health care — despite having dominated Congress for much of last year — will have less an influence on November’s elections than the economy.
“Americans won’t be able to test the veracity of these wildly divergent claims [about the health care bill],” Robert Reich, former secretary of Labor under President Clinton, wrote on his personal blog Tuesday. “So don’t count on health reform to help Dems next November — nor harm them, either.”
Instead, Democratic leaders will likely focus their energies this year trying to improve the economy (where unemployment remains in double digits) and safety measures in the wake of a near terrorist attack in Detroit on Christmas Day.
“It’s a security year,” said Princeton history professor Julian E. Zelizer. “Job security and national security.”
On the domestic front, the reason for that focus on unemployment is clear: The higher the jobless rate in November, experts warn, the worse the Democrats will fare in the mid-terms.
“If unemployment is 10 percent or more next November,” Reich predicted Tuesday, “the Dems are in danger of losing the House and will almost certainly be short of the 60 votes they need in the Senate.”
A focus on jobs at the exclusion of other domestic reforms, however, also risks alienating liberals, who were hopeful that a Democratic Party in control of the White House and both congressional chambers would have better luck enacting a progressive agenda — including energy reform, mortgage bankruptcy reform, and bank regulatory reform — than they’ve had in the 111th Congress.
The sticking point is largely the Senate. Although House Democrats were able to pass a number of the party’s legislative priorities last year, a vast majority of those bills hit a wall in the upper chamber, where esoteric procedures and GOP obstructionism conspired to leave upper-chamber leaders simply without the time to tackle them.
Indeed, the House passed 970 bills in 2009, according to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), while President Obama signed just 125 bills into law — a discrepancy reflecting the snail’s pace of the Senate, where Republican leaders all year have delayed the legislative process, even during debate on the most non-controversial proposals. And experts are predicting that the Republicans’ stalling tactics will persist in 2010.
“That’s one of the most successful strategies in American politics: Don’t let the majority do things very quickly,” said Zelizer. “I see no reason for them [Republicans] to change that this year.”
Another timing issue could also limit the Democrats’ legislative successes this year: Lawmakers tend to spend more days away from Washington during election years for the simple reason that they’d rather be wooing voters in their districts than making speeches to empty chambers on Capitol Hill.
At risk of being discarded — or at least pushed to another year — is a sweeping proposal to rein in the country’s contribution to global climate change. The House last summer passed its version of the bill, but it took some arm-twisting from Democratic leaders to convince enough party moderates to support the controversial cap-and-trade proposal. Even then, the bill passed by a slim margin of 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against it. In the Senate, where just 41 members can kill legislation, the barriers to passing such a controversial proposal in an election year are just that much higher. “Not that it’s not important,” Zelizer said. “But politically there just aren’t a lot of Democrats who want to invest their political capital [in climate change].”
Michael Bailey, political science professor at Georgetown University, agreed, arguing that, while there are plenty of policy reasons to pass a climate change bill, there’s really no political advantage in tackling the thorny issue during a difficult election year. “All of the voters who are responsive to that,” Bailey said, “are going to vote Democratic anyway.”
Senate Republicans are well aware of the political pickle facing Democratic leaders this year.
“With the controversy that came up after the House passed it, and the lack of any accomplishment whatsoever — regardless of the official statements put out, there was no accomplishment of anything in Copenhagen — I think it doesn’t spell a good opportunity [for the climate bill],” Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), senior Republican on the Finance Committee, told reporters Tuesday.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that, after health care reform, Senate Democrats haven’t yet laid out their legislative strategy, although a jobs bill, passed by the House last month, is widely thought to be coming soon.
Still, there are other Democratic priorities that could get lost this election year. A bill empowering homeowners to file bankruptcy to prevent foreclosure, for example, passed the House last summer, but opposition from the finance industry killed it in the Senate. Many housing advocates have argued that the so-called “cramdown” proposal would provide a valuable tool for struggling homeowners, 14 percent of whom are currently in default. Indeed, although foreclosure activity has declined for four straight months, according to figures compiled by RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure database, more than 306,000 foreclosures were reported last November — 18 percent above the number reported a year earlier. Yet there’s no indication that the moderate Democratic senators who killed the proposal would find a new appetite to take on the powerful banking industry even closer to this year’s elections.
“I hope policymakers aren’t banking on the situation improving on its own,” warned David Abromowitz, housing expert at the liberal Center for American Progress.