WASHINGTON — The public panned it. Republicans obstructed it. Many Democrats fled from it. Even so, the session of Congress now drawing to a close was the most productive in nearly half a century.
Not since the explosive years of the civil rights movement and the hard-fought debut of government-supported health care for the elderly and poor have so many big things — love them or hate them — been done so quickly.
Gridlock? It may feel that way. But that's not the story of the 111th Congress — not the story history will remember.
Democrats are dearly hoping history won't repeat itself. In 1966, after Democrats created Medicare and Medicaid and passed civil rights laws, they got hammered in the election, losing 48 seats in the House and four in the Senate. They maintained their majorities in both at the time, but an identical result next month would turn the House over to Republicans.
In the 1960s Democrats paid the price for events largely outside their control — an escalating war in Vietnam going badly, rowdy anti-war protests and violence in American cities, said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College.
“I think that's what's going on this time too,” Fowler said, “despite a very significant record of accomplishment.”
Democrats struggling now to retain majorities in the House and Senate must deal with a public that is quick to blame Washington for the prolonged economic downturn, and that resents the bank bailouts that were actually passed by the previous Congress.
In terms of legislative successes, the current session of Congress is “at least on a par with the 89th Congress” of 1965-1966, said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
But, he added, Republicans have done all they could to discredit Congress and Democrats have failed to sell their agenda. Moreover, it will take years to fully feel the effects of the health care law and financial regulation.
“A world dominated by bickering and epithet-throwing and bomb tossing in Washington obscures accomplishments,” Ornstein said.
Congress passed an $814 billion economic stimulus package soon after President Barack Obama took office, tapping a staggering sum of money to avoid a full-blown depression. Democrats have trumpeted the gains from that effort, but know it's not enough for restive voters. “Americans still see themselves in a ditch,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
The two other landmark acts of this session were the health care overhaul, a giant step toward universal coverage that had eluded presidents back to Franklin Roosevelt if not Teddy Roosevelt, and the Wall Street accountability act.
Obama has also signed into law at least a dozen other pieces of legislation of significance. They include:
—Making college loans more affordable.
—The Cash for Clunkers program that helped rejuvenate the auto industry.
—New consumer protections for credit card users.
—Making it easier for women to challenge pay discrimination.
—Increasing federal regulation of tobacco products.
—Cracking down on waste in Pentagon weapons acquisition.
—Making attacks based on sexual orientation a federal hate crime.
—Giving businesses tax incentives to hire unemployed workers.
—Tax credits for first-time homeowners.
So where is the love?
Polls suggest three-fourths of Americans disapprove of Congress.
The 1960s were a time of upheaval, and Medicare only arrived after a bitter debate echoing with cries from the right that socialism was on the march in America. Yet people had a lot more faith in government to do the right thing, polls from that time indicate.
And Medicare grew to be so popular that Republicans, the party that resisted it, have been quick to accuse Democrats of trying to cut it when they proposed to slow its growth and use the savings to help provide medical care to millions who lack health insurance.
An erosion of trust in institutions in general has enabled Republicans to score points by arguing that Democratic Big Government programs are exploding the national debt, Ornstein said. The result, he added, is that not many Democrats are campaigning on the benefits of the stimulus package, even though one-third of it was tax cuts that put money in most people's pockets.
“The amazing thing is that we have had such a productive Congress despite the obstructionism,” Hoyer said. “Republicans and their media have successfully sent out a message that the Congress has failed.”
Democrats cling to a hope that voters in the last two weeks before the election will come to a more favorable view of how the party handled health care and the economy.
But in taking on issues for the history books, Democrats have failed on some matters close to the hearts of allies whose energy is vital in an election. Legislation making it easier to unionize workplaces is stalled, Hispanics are still pressing for an overhaul of the immigration system and environmental groups want action on climate change.
Democratic leaders put off action for nearly two years on preventing a massive tax increase come Jan. 1, when the Bush-era tax cuts run out. And they couldn't even put a budget together this year. But it's not what Congress didn't accomplish the past two years, it's what it did do that seems to have voters most riled.