- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

They made it to Washington. Now, the big question is whether they can make history.With Democrats firmly in control of the White House and Congress for the first time in 14 years, two hot wars, a deepening economic crisis and an ambitious reform agenda laid out by President-elect Barack Obama, the 111th Congress has a chance to claim a slot as one of the most productive and influential legislative sessions ever.

“History is in a hurry,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said shortly after the November elections, noting both the crush of major legislation and the soaring public expectations after Mr. Obama’s election as she introduced the new slate of House Democratic leaders.

“The American people have the right to have those expectations and to hold us accountable,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “We promise not to disappoint them.”

With the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota still hanging in the balance, nine new senators, 54 representatives and two delegates have taken their seats in the 111th Congress. The new House and Senate have between them a record 91 women, or 17 percent of the total.

From all accounts, it will be a working honeymoon. Ignoring the tradition of recessing until the new president is sworn in, lawmakers have gotten down to work immediately, starting to draft an economic stimulus bill and sparring over the fate of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan.

Even as the freshman members move in, furnish their offices, hire their staffs and learn the best shortcuts to get around the Capitol, they have been working from the very first day.

The first order of business will be historic: a precedent-shattering economic stimulus package that Democratic leaders had hoped would arrive on Mr. Obama’s desk on Jan. 20, the day he becomes president. But that hope has gone by the boards as lawmakers now say it will be mid-February at the earliest.

But the 111th Congress may well cement or squander its place in history by what happens next. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats have talked hopefully of taking quick action on health care, energy policy and environmental law while unwinding the war in Iraq and revamping the Bush administration’s defense and national security policies.

If the past is any guide, the road ahead could be rockier than it appears.

First 100 days

In 1993, Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to occupy the White House, enjoyed Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress comparable to those with which Mr. Obama will work. Also like Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton came to power after a lengthy Republican hold on the presidency.

As a candidate, Mr. Clinton promised a fast start.

“I’ll have the bills ready,” he told voters. “We’ll have a 100-day period. It will be the most productive period in modern history.”

However, the health care overhaul spearheaded by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton famously collapsed, and the two biggest bills passed in the early days of the 103rd Congress were the relatively modest Family and Medical Leave Act and a law easing requirements to register to vote.

The gold medalist for congressional hyperactivity - and the originator of the 100-day yardstick - traditionally has been the 73rd Congress, which was seated in March 1933.

Large Democratic majorities in both houses worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a string of major legislation to address the Great Depression.

An emergency banking rescue package passed four hours after it was introduced, and from March 9 to June 16 that year - exactly 100 days - Congress passed bills to aid farmers, fund public works and conservation projects, balance the federal budget, overhaul banking and financial regulation, and create such diverse institutions as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Raymond Moley, a member of Roosevelt’s brain trust, said of the 73rd Congress: “The legislative record it set, the impression it created on the public, its impact on the economy of the nation, and the incredible speed with which important legislation was passed, considered, proposed and enacted have no parallel in the history of the republic.”

Historic highs

The very first Congress, convening first at Federal Hall on Wall Street and then at Philadelphia’s Congress Hall, set the achievement bar high at the start.

Organizing the new government in 1791, Congress created the Departments of Foreign Affairs, War and the Treasury; outlined the rules for the census, naturalizing citizens and approving patents; formally created the Supreme Court and First National Bank of the United States; and sent the first 12 amendments to the Constitution to the states for ratification.

Some presidents have embraced the idea of historic quick starts to their administrations, when their political capital is at its highest. Others have shied away from overloading Congress too early in their administrations.

In his famous “ask not” inaugural address in 1961, President Kennedy laid out an ambitious agenda but cautioned against unrealistic expectations.

“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Four congressional scholars from the Brookings Institution - Sarah A. Binder, Thomas E. Mann, Norman J. Ornstein and Molly Reynolds - argue that the incoming Congress, with its enhanced Democratic majorities, will face pressure to improve on the mixed record of the previous Congress.

In the past two years, congressional Democrats approved an increase in the minimum wage and scored other victories but were stymied by the Republican minority and President Bush on such issues as climate change and the Iraq War.

With the economic stimulus plan and a raft of policy proposals on tap, “the new president appears ready to take up the charge,” the Brookings analysts conclude. “Can we say the same of the Congress?”

Political scientists J. Tobin Grant of Ohio State University and Nathan J. Kelly of the University of Tennessee developed a mathematical formula employing algorithms, coefficients and the “Engle-Granger two-step estimation procedure” in a bid to rank the country’s most active and consequential Congresses.

The calculation is based in part on roll-call votes taken, bills passed and a rough ranking of the significance of the laws signed.

The two scholars’ legislative productivity index, or LPI, awards the 1933-35 Congress under Roosevelt a then-unprecedented 166.25 score, compared with just 80.69 for the first Congress. That record stood until the Eisenhower administration but was shattered by the Congresses under Mr. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

The 89th Congress, which came to Washington in Mr. Johnson’s landslide win over Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, claims the highest LPI in Mr. Grant and Mr. Kelly’s ranking. In that session, Democrats enjoyed veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and House.

In its first few months in office, the 89th passed the Voting Rights Act; major education, environmental and Social Security bills; and the first major overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in more than four decades, good for a 188.31 ranking under the LPI system.

Quick start

Whether the 111th Congress and Mr. Obama can top that figure remains a question mark, with Democratic liberals and fiscal conservatives in Congress already jockeying for advantage. The slipping date for the stimulus package is an early sign that Mr. Obama and his congressional allies will not be able to go at the speed many had predicted.

Congressional leaders have put the incoming members on notice that the pace will be quickening.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, last month quietly released the proposed work schedule for the 2009 legislative year. It includes 11 five-day workweeks and 18 four-day weeks.

Democratic leaders tried to extend the Tuesday-to-Thursday legislative business calendar when they took power in 2006 but largely abandoned the longer workweek during the 2008 campaign.

All told, new members can expect the House to be in session 137 days before the planned Oct. 30 adjournment, including at least seven working days before Mr. Obama is sworn into office.

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