Recently the Republicans have begun claiming that this Congress is a 'do-nothing' Congress, in an attempt to undermine the Congressmen and Congresswomen that we have worked very hard to elect.
That is however, absolutely false.
This Congress has passed and the President has signed at least three major pieces of legislation, all on issues that had been languishing and unattended to since the beginning of his administration:
1. Minimum wage increase. This represented the first increase in the minimum wage since 1998. Previous attempts in the GOP Congress had failed every single year.
2. College financial aid bill. With skyrocketing tuition costs and students leaving school tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they even have their first full-time job, this bill cuts interest rates in half and helps school boards with limited budgets recruit qualified teachers by giving college graduates a way to be forgiven of some or all of their debt if they step into the classroom for a few years, and it will cost the local school boards nothing.
3. Ethics reform bill. We saw the 'culture of corruption' last year in Washington, and as we've seen this year some of it still has to be rooted out. So Congress passed the most sweeping ethics reform bill since the Watergate era. Critics like to point out the loopholes that still remain. Sure, but those which remain also remained when the GOP Congress did absolutely nothing about ethics reform (other than DeLay's attempts to 'fix' the problem by packing the ethics oversight committee with his cronies).
There are also three other important pieces of legislation that haven't gotten passed mainly due to the President's veto and/or Republican-led filibusters and opposition in the Senate:
1. An Iraq bill which mandates withdrawal deadlines. The American people are quite bluntly put sick and tired of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars down this rat-hole when there are crying needs to pay for here. And on top of that, we are borrowing money to pay for it, but the GOP members of Congress won't even consider a supplemental tax to pay for Iraq, preferring instead to pass the debt on to future generations (with interest, of course.)
2. A stem-cell funding bill. Our policy restricting research in this area is just one of many examples of the administration's disdain for science and scientific research. Other examples include cuts to alternative fuel programs and backing the teaching of creationism in public schools. The result is that the pace of progress for American science, which had effectively lapped the rest of field by the end of the Cold War, has slowed down considerably so that we are now living on 'borrowed time' until the rest of the world catches up (and they are not so far back anymore.) The stem-cell bill was of course only a piece of this whole but it is the piece where the battleground was drawn with Congress. In fact, even last year's Republican Congress realized how important this was and passed a stem-cell funding bill, but the President, who seems to live in a world of his own where science plays second fiddle to dogma, vetoed it.
3. SCHIP. The GOP has been misleading about this from the get go. SCHIP is not a Federal program except for residents of the District of Columbia, but rather a bunch of 'block grants' to states (recall that is something that the Republican Congress did with many Federal programs in the 1990's). Congress must give some guidelines to make sure the money is being spent appropriately, but it sets intentionally broad parameters as to what those limits are in order to allow the states the flexibility to tailor their programs to the specific needs within their state. Keep in mind this is a Republican reform. But opponents of SCHIP renewal are now implying that it is the federal government that would be paying for it (i.e. 'national' healthcare) and quote the maximum allowable limits for any state (intentionally set high to allow states to cover high-cost of living cities like NY and SF if they exist within the state) and imply that would be the limit for everybody. Of course if you live in most places, $81 thousand for a family of four sounds like a ridiculously high limit and in most places it is, but it would not be in, for example, downtown San Francisco where even small economy apartments can run upwards of $2500 per month plus utilities. In a place like where I live that would be two or three times the typical mortgage, so there is little comparison. But count on Republicans to take a good idea like flexibility to the states which they should be taking credit for and twist it into a way to deny funding for kids health insurance (at current levels, Maine and several other states will soon begin running out of funds as health care costs have continued to accelerate rapidly).
4. Comprehensive mmigration reform. We can't get a handle on the problem without including a market based solution that addresses the reason why illegal border crossers keep coming-- our own job market (unemployment is at historic lows, so the idea that they are taking jobs from Americans is just not true.) This was one bill that the President would have signed, but it was blocked primarily by Republicans in the Senate (though with the misguided defections of a handful of Democrats.)
So on these bills, the Democratic Congress passed six out of seven, and three of those were signed. Not good enough, but certainly not the 'do-nothing' title that GOP strategists are claiming (that title would belong to the previous GOP Congress which failed even to pass nine out of eleven spending bills in 2006, virtually guaranteeing that this Congress would get off to a slow start as they had to finish last year's work.*)
What needs to be done now? Well, getting larger Democratic majorities in Congress would be a very good start, especially in the Senate where the balance of power hangs by a thread. A veto-proof majority would be nice but probably a very high hill to climb (but not absolutely impossible-- on SCHIP 44 Republicans voted to override, leaving about fifteen short.) And this should make it absolutely clear that we will need a Democratic President next year, someone who will sign these bills if Congress passes them.
*-- the more conspiratorially minded among us might even wonder, given the current assault on Congress in the right-wing media, whether this was actually part of a grand strategy that began last year to gum up the works and lay the foundation for the kinds of charges we are now seeing.