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As a surprisingly productive Congress wraps up, a mess awaits

The 117th Congress wraps up in a few hours, and its list of accomplishments is impressive. The 118th Congress will be spectacularly worse.


As the 117th Congress got underway two years ago, expectations were low. Lawmakers were poised to govern in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, in an evenly divided Senate, and with Democrats enjoying a small majority in the House. It was hardly a recipe for legislative success.

And yet, as the current Congress comes to an official end in a few hours, it’s worth pausing to note that federal policymakers are wrapping up a surprisingly productive session. As the Associated Press recently summarized:

The 117th Congress opened with the unfathomable Jan. 6, 2021, mob siege of the Capitol and is closing with unprecedented federal criminal referrals of the former president over the insurrection — all while conducting one of the most consequential legislative sessions in recent memory. Lawmakers are wrapping up the two-year session having found surprisingly common ground on big bills, despite enduring bitter political divisions that haunt the halls, and the country, after the bloody Capitol attack by supporters of the defeated president, Donald Trump, that threatened democracy.

In the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans controlled the levers of policymaking power, but the party achieved very little during their unified control of Congress and the White House. GOP officials successfully passed regressive tax breaks, failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and even shut down the government. By any fair measure, the 115th Congress was hardly a historic success.

In contrast, in the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency, Democrats controlled the same levers of power — and have quite a bit to show for their work.

In some instances, Democrats advanced their policy goals largely on their own, passing the American Rescue Plan, for example, which included, among other things, a progressive child-tax-credit policy and funds for lower health care premiums. The party also passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included the most ambitious investments ever in combating the climate crisis, as well as new caps on insulin costs.

The list of bipartisan accomplishments, however, is even longer. As regular readers know, the list includes the infrastructure package, the CHIPS and Science Act, an expansion of veterans benefits in the PACT Act, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the first major legislation to address gun violence in nearly three decades —the Postal Service Reform Act, the Respect for Marriage Act, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, and even a historic overhaul of the Electoral Count Act.

Not too shabby in a two-year session in which the Democratic majority barely existed. Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer deserve credit for defying expectations and putting a whole lot of check marks next to items on their to-do list.

But before voters start to feel a degree of satisfaction with these accomplishments, it’s also worth emphasizing the unfortunate fact that recent progress is poised to come to a painful stop. The incoming House Republican majority, if it can figure out a way to elect its own speaker, appears to have no meaningful interest in governing over the next couple of years, and we’ll all be quite lucky if the GOP-led House avoids pushing the United States into default later this year.

All of which is to say, the legislative progress was nice while it lasted.