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David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College.
It’s a safe bet that President Joe Biden will use his State of the Union address to brag about his many policy accomplishments over the last two years — and that the Democrats in the audience will respond with cheers. Many of Biden’s supporters argue that he can claim a truly exceptional degree of legislative success. According to the historical record, however, that’s quite an overstatement.
Biden can justifiably be pleased with the cooperation he received from Congress before the Republican Party gained control of the House of Representatives last year, foreshadowing a far more turbulent relationship to come. Democrats took advantage of both of their annual opportunities to circumvent the Senate filibuster via the budget reconciliation process, passing economic stimulus legislation in early 2021 and a sweeping climate and health-care reform bill last summer. Biden also signed laws addressing an assortment of other issues (infrastructure, gun safety, same-sex marriage protection) with varying degrees of bipartisan support.
There’s nothing wrong with Democrats taking pride in this steady stream of policy-making. But their braggadocio has sometimes gone too far.
Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, a member of the House Democratic leadership, claimed last August that this was “arguably the most productive Congress since the Great Society in the 1960s.” Veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum called Biden “the most legislatively successful president since LBJ.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer got even more carried away, boasting in December that “the only dispute” is whether the last session of Congress was “the most productive two years in [the] 50 years since the Great Society, or the most productive in [the] 100 years since the New Deal.”
This rhetoric isn’t borne out by the evidence. David Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale, maintains a dataset of every important federal legislative enactment since the end of World War II. According to his count, the 2021–2022 Congress passed 13 major bills — a perfectly respectable number (since 1981, the average is 11) but hardly a historic peak. In fact, the 2019-2020 Congress was slightly more productive, enacting 15 major bills, though five of those were emergency measures responding to the pandemic.
Of course, Democrats’ triumphant attitude reflects not only the sheer volume of legislation, but also the array of liberal concerns that it addressed. According to Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, the number of legislative acts moving national policy to the ideological left in 2021 and 2022 was indeed unusually high compared to most sessions of Congress since the 1990s, though it fell far short of the peak of liberal policy-making in the Great Society era. Claims that Biden compares to Lyndon Johnson or Franklin D. Roosevelt as a transformational figure remain exercises in hyperbole.
All this “not since LBJ” talk also curiously ignores the scale of legislative productivity during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The data collected by Mayhew and Grossmann rank the 2009–2010 Congress ahead of its 2021–2022 counterpart in both the total quantity of major laws enacted and the number of measures that moved federal policy leftward. And it’s hard to make a convincing case that Biden has signed any bill into law that approaches the substantive and political importance of the Affordable Care Act.
In fact, the passage of the ACA is itself responsible for Biden’s ability to fulfill many Democrats’ hopes for his presidency. Had Congress not succeeded in passing Obamacare, Biden would have faced urgent demands to accomplish what would surely have remained as his party’s top domestic priority. Tackling health-care reform would have required substantial energy, attention and political capital, but his chances of success would have been quite remote given the narrow partisan margins in Congress.
By crossing the biggest and toughest item off the perennial Democratic legislative agenda, Obama freed Biden to concentrate on other goals that were both easier to achieve and less politically explosive. This accomplishment also allowed Biden to avoid the devastating backlash in the 2022 midterms that Obama suffered in 2010.
Democrats certainly have good reason to be in a cheerful mood these days. But they should be careful to express their feelings without subjecting the rest of us to a rewriting of history.