CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
Sept. 1, 2012 – 12:35 p.m.
Obama’s Congressional Scorecard
By David Harrison, CQ Staff
The futility of President Obama’s inaugural proclamation of an end to partisan bickering was nowhere more evident than in the 111th and 112th Congresses.
Republicans opposed nearly everything the new president proposed, and in the process cast Obama as a big-spending advocate of government control and an enemy of the private sector with no idea how jobs are created.
The GOP unsuccessfully fought Obama’s economic stimulus and health care proposals during his first two years in office, and shortly before the 2010 elections Senate Minority Leader
The goal of avoiding partisan gridlock and launching a post-partisan era did not seem as far-fetched on Inauguration Day as it does now. Democrats controlled both chambers, but it would be a few months until they achieved the filibuster-proof Senate majority they would hold briefly. The country faced an economic crisis that some hoped would force Democrats and Republicans to work together.
It didn’t work out that way, even at the start. No Republican House member and just three GOP senators voted for the stimulus package in February 2009. Then came an all-out battle on overhauling health care, which resulted in a 2010 law that Republicans have been campaigning against ever since.
Since last summer’s battle over increasing the debt limit, the administration has largely given up on finding common ground with the opposition party. The White House has sought to outmaneuver Capitol Hill Republicans by appealing to voters, and, when possible, making policy administratively. Obama tested the limits of his ability to make recess appointments, while the administration granted 32 states and the District of Columbia waivers from the education law known as No Child Left Behind. Earlier this summer, Obama offered a reprieve from deportation to some young illegal immigrants.
Here are some highlights of the Obama administration’s dealings with Congress:
The 2009 stimulus, which pumped $819 billion into infrastructure projects, research grants, tax cuts and other anti-recessionary spending, represented the sort of overt government involvement in the economy anathema to conservative Republicans. Obama campaigned on the need for a stimulus and struggled to push it through Congress, even with Democratic majorities in both chambers. Republicans said the idea would do little but increase deficit spending.
The results of the stimulus were hard to quantify and remain much disputed. Democrats argue that the stimulus was too small to be an economic cure-all, while Republicans call it a boondoggle. In 2011, Obama called for an additional $400 billion for infrastructure, school modernization, aid to local governments and school systems and a variety of tax cuts. Republicans quickly shot down the proposed spending. Some of the tax proposals were enacted with bipartisan support, suggesting that any new effort to boost the economy is likely to take the form of tax cuts rather than spending increases.
Although the writing and enactment of the health care law were messy, Obama achieved one of his top legislative goals: a law intended to extend health insurance coverage to millions more Americans.
Obama’s Congressional Scorecard
Obama did not pursue the liberal approach of a single-payer federal health system, but instead proposed broadening health care coverage by helping many Americans obtain insurance and expanding Medicaid. The White House largely left it to Congress to write the bill, with administration aides working with congressional leaders. But months of negotiations, particularly in the Senate, ultimately failed to generate bipartisan support.
Republicans immediately pledged to repeal the law and block its implementation, while challenging its constitutionality. The Supreme Court upheld most of the law in June, and some of its major provisions are scheduled to take effect in 2014. Republicans are sure to continue their repeal efforts in the next Congress, and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has pledged to undo parts of the law by executive order.
Debt Limit/Deficit Reduction
The low point in relations between Obama and congressional Republicans may have been last summer’s negotiations over increasing the debt limit and reducing the deficit. Republicans insisted that a debt limit increase be paired with an equal or greater amount of spending reductions, and some House Republicans were willing to see the government default unless their terms were met.
Obama’s negotiations with GOP House Speaker
The legislation provided staged debt limit increases, set spending caps over 10 years and established a “supercommittee” to propose deficit reduction measures. That panel’s failure to agree on a plan sets the stage for automatic budget cuts beginning in January.
Congressional approval ratings in public opinion polls fell into the low double digits and Standard & Poor’s cut its rating on U.S. Treasury debt.
Obama and congressional Republicans remain in a standoff over the administration’s proposal to allow income tax rates to increase for upper-income taxpayers. Republicans insist that deficit reduction should focus on spending cuts.
In late 2010, Obama agreed to Republican demands that all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts be extended. The two-year extension expires Dec. 31, forcing Obama and Congress to address tax rates again, probably during a post-election session. One thing all parties agree on is that allowing tax rates for all income brackets to jump back to their 2001 levels would be devastating to the economy.
Obama’s deal with Republicans angered House Democrats who had backed his call for allowing upper-bracket taxes to increase, and who opposed the legislation’s estate tax provisions. But the agreement also included an unemployment benefits extension sought by Democrats and a payroll tax reduction proposed by Obama. Both were later extended through the end of 2012.
Taking office shortly after the financial system nearly collapsed, Obama was determined to tighten regulation. In June 2009, he called for new powers to dissolve failing banks and regulate derivatives. He also urged Congress to establish an agency to protect consumers from predatory behavior in financial markets.
Obama’s Congressional Scorecard
Wall Street and its GOP allies opposed the plans. But the administration was able to move the bill through Congress with the help of Democrats, including House Financial Services Chairman
Two years after enactment, much of Dodd-Frank has yet to be implemented. Senate Republicans blocked confirmation of a director of the new consumer bureau, prompting Obama to give Richard Cordray a recess appointment. In a second term, Obama would likely need to continue to fend off Republican efforts to roll back the law.
Faced with opposition from the energy industry and lawmakers from oil-producing states, Obama dropped plans to address climate change in his first term. A cap-and-trade bill collapsed in the Senate in 2010 after House passage the previous year.
Republicans pushed for expanded offshore oil drilling, accusing the administration of prolonging the economic downturn by imposing a moratorium on deep-water drilling after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. They also criticized Obama for putting money into alternative energy projects and for not expediting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Democrats trying to get traction for climate change legislation were disappointed by Obama’s inaction. Prospects are dim for a change in that situation during a second Obama term.
Faced with the likely demise of two major American automakers, Obama ignored congressional objections and expanded President George W. Bush’s auto industry bailout to rescue General Motors Corp. and Chrysler.
Many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, said the government should not have intervened. But Obama was willing to take the criticism and risk billions of dollars to prevent the potential loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs on his watch.
As part of the bailout, the White House forced the companies into government-aided bankruptcy, which allowed them to restructure their debts. Manufacturers also agreed to increase fuel efficiency.
Both Chrysler and GM have returned to profitability, and Obama and congressional Democrats are touting the bailout as they campaign in Midwest states.
Obama made an intense push this spring for the extension of reduced interest rates on new federally subsidized undergraduate student loans. The interest rate was scheduled to jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
Obama’s Congressional Scorecard
While Republicans insisted they were willing to extend the lower rates, they balked at the Democrats’ proposal to offset the cost by eliminating a corporate tax break. Obama took to the stump, accusing Republicans of a willingness to raise costs for students while backing tax breaks for high earners.
Republicans eventually agreed to a plan from Democratic Senate Majority Leader
After staying on the sidelines as popular uprisings toppled autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, Obama committed the United States to an aerial bombing campaign in support of rebel groups that eventually overthrew Libya’s President Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Lawmakers wary of the cost of new military action and upset that the administration did not seek congressional approval struggled to respond. The House rejected both an effort to cut off funds and a resolution authorizing the use of force. Obama dismissed the debate as “noise about process.”
Some lawmakers, particularly Republican Sens.
During his first month in office, Obama ordered the closing of the Guantànamo Bay detention facility within a year. His fiscal 2010 budget included $80 million to close the prison and develop a new detainee policy.
The Senate delivered a sharp rebuke to the new president, voting 90-6 to block funding for closing the detention facility. Since then, similar policy riders have been routinely introduced in appropriations bills.
The administration suffered another setback when it had to abandon plans to try Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in New York.
The administration has let the question of Guantánamo’s future slide. “Obviously I haven’t been able to make the case right now, and without Congress’ cooperation we can’t do it,” Obama told the Associated Press.