The lame duck session of Congress, with just four more days to go after today (or so) has been busy.
In addition to passing a major tax bill covering the next two years (and extending extended unemployment benefits for another thirteen months), it has passed Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal (i.e. legislatively permitted gays in the United States military), passed a law prohibiting the use of false caller ID numbers to solicit personal information, is making progress in passing food security legislation, has passed a defense appropriations bill and appears to be well on its way to passing the rest of the appropriations bills. There seems to be a good chance that the START nuclear arms treaty will still be passed, and that there may yet be a few judicial nominees confirmed before the lame duck session ends. Diana DeGette's Stem Cell research bill seems less likely to pass.
The failure of Republicans to acknowledge that any new revenues are needed, and to get more in the way of tax cuts than they had even sought, combined with a failure of anyone to put any meaningful defense spending cuts on the table in this year's defense budget, seems to insure that the next two years have record deficits. President Obama's deficit commission, whose proposals were mostly politically impossible, and unwise from a policy or social justice perspective, made few productive contributions to that debate. Their report, which secured consensus around none of its proposals, was dead on arrival in Capital Hill.
Defeated, despite support from the President, 55 Senators (it was opposed by 41 Senators filibustering the measure), and a majority of members of the House of Representatives, was the DREAM Act, which would have made U.S. citizenship available to young adults assimilated into U.S. society who are children of illegal immigrants who brought them to the U.S. who commit to higher education or military service. Given that opposition to any form of loosening of immigration policy has become highly partisan, with Republicans on the anti-immigration side of the debate, and the timid, consensus oriented ambitions of the DREAM Act, any form of compromise on immigration legislation once Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives in January seems doomed until 2013 at the earliest.
Shutting our doors to increased legal immigration is surely harmful to our economy, and a Republican policy favoring draconian efforts to close the border to illegal immigration and deport ten million or so undocumented aliens in the United States (and their U.S. citizen families), which is impracticable, inhumane and would be devistating the economy if it happened, leaves the nation in a hypocritical limbo.
The DREAM Act isn't the only bill with strong Democratic support that failed to become law. The Employee Fairness Act, a major pro-union legislative initiative stalled and died. The President's campaign promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay went unmet, and he has largely toed the line of the Bush Administration with regard to war on terrorism policies, despite some half-hearted efforts at reforms.
Defeats of multiple nominations and bills with healthy majority support in the U.S. Senate by Republican minorities willing to use every procedural tool to say no to the Democratic agenda (even bills and legislative ideas they had previously proposed themselves) has also highlighted the problem of excessive minority power in that body, but so far, has not mustered enough political will to end the filibuster and other anti-majoritarian institutions in the Senate.
Without reform, the President may even have to resort to recess appointments to put people in place to get the government's work done.
Some bills, including the tax bill, passed only with major defections by Congressional Democrats, with predominantly Republican support. It isn't clear that this has won President Obama any long lasting credit from the Republican base which has villified him, contrary to the facts, as a socialist, gun hating unAmerican. But, his swing to the right politically may cost him the enthusiastic support of the Democratic base in 2012, although the nomination of a fire breathing Tea Party conservative as a Republican nominee could change that political reality.
It also isn't clear if House Republicans who campaigned vigorously against even politically popular parts of the American welfare state, as well as the health care reform bill, will receive cooperation from President Obama in doing so. His commitment to the Democratic agenda on this issue is not at all clear.
The last minute defense appropriations bill managed to avoid becoming a forum for discontent over the course of the war in Afghanistan, now that the war in Iraq is almost over. But, Democrats in Congress are increasingly growing uneasy about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, which has become the longest war in U.S. history, and Republicans aren't keen to support the President in general, despite generally more bellicose attitudes towards foreign affairs. A heated debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan is sure to resurface in the next session of Congress.
As we head into a period of divided government, the Republicans have a mostly fiscal agenda that is mathematically impossible and a visceral opposition to anything proposed by the President or any Democrat regardless of its policy merits, while the Democrats simply don't have much of a plan, period despite being in a state of remarkable ideological consensus within the legislative party, due to the defeat of many Congressional Blue Dog Democrats, including both of the Blue Dogs from Colorado.
It is hard to see much on the legislative horizon but gridlock, and we will be lucky if there is enough consensus to even pass the appropriations bills necessary to keep the government running in 2011 and 2012.
House Democrats, rendered impotent and irrelevant as a minority in Congress in a house that lacks rights for the minority party, will have plenty of time to consider these matters while their bills are shot down in committee and the Republicans embark on the agenda of trying to make the administration look bad because they have no substantive power to pass their own agenda without Democratic consent.
The reduced ranks of Democrats in the Senate, under the less than impressive tactical and stategic leadership of Harry Reid, seem sure to cave further to Republican demands in every case where the President doesn't inject them with backbone, and the President seems less than enthusiasic about holding his ground. The President's vision for our nation's future, which seemed so clear on the campaign trail, appears to have grown cloudy.
Of course, a weak economy helps none of this, and 2011, at least, looks more likely to be another year of stagnation than a year of vigorous economic recovery. The stimulus effects claimed for the latest round of tax cuts seem unlikely to materialize, because measures like speeding up depreciation deductions have never had much of a stimulative effect on the economy in the past. Perhaps 2012 will be better, but I am not holding my breath for a strong economic recovery any time soon. We will have high unemployment and a GDP smaller than it was when the financial crisis struck for most or all of the coming year.
There are a few bright spots left. Financial regulation reform bill regulations are still waiting to be adopted and could secure positive policy changes without further legislative action. The failure of Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal to wreck havoc in the United State military will discredit anti-gay rights doomsayers again. Proposition 8's court defeat is likely to be upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, bringing gay marriage to our nation's largest state, and new IRS regulations have brought back door equity of same sex couples of California.
U.S. Sentencing Commission proposals that are making progress could trim some of the most unreasonable criminal sentences in the federal prison system, and a general Republican distrust of the federal government and desire to cut federal spending and employment may put pressure on Congress to reduce the federal role in law enforcement, which in the drug war, in particular, has mostly been a negative one.
The "when the dust settles" estimates of the costs of the finanicial crisis bailouts has fallen all through the later part of 2010, and is likely to fall a bit further in 2011, leaving those decisions as less of an albatross around the adminstration's neck. And, the divestment of U.S. interests in institutions bailed out in exchange for equity in the financial and automotive sector will also allay mostly misplaced fears of a creeping policy of nationalizing industry.
A retreat from the brink today by North Korea, in the face of diplomacy by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, suggests that its leadership may still be crazy like a fox, rather than merely crazy. There are some hints from South of the border, that Mexico's drug war may finally be turning a corner, and also that some of the other epidemics of Latin American crime from Venezula to Brazil which aren't so directly related to the drug trade may be running their course. Afghanistan may be wobbly, but time and again, there are reports of major unanswered blows to the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and setbacks for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps Afghanistan's civilian leadership is simply too corrupt and incompetent to run their country on its own, but there does seem to be some indifferent progress. While there are still embers burning in the various foreign affairs fires that smolder around the world, any really major crisis would have to pretty much come out of nowhere.