The year behind, the year ahead
2011 is now making its way into the history books. Some authors are noting that Congress ended the year with a dismal 12 percent job approval rating, according to Real Clear Politics’ averaging of polls—one of its lowest approval ratings in recent years. Others are dubbing 2011 the year of the “do nothing” Congress, with lawmakers having passed the fewest number of bills of any Congress in more than two decades. Content, though, undoubtedly concerns the public more than quantity.
But what shouldn’t be missed is the story of contrasts on Capitol Hill. A striking narrative of the first session of the 112th Congress might read as follows: House upholds socially conservative policies; Senate rebukes them. Regrettably, more than a few good bills made their way through the House in 2011, only to face defeat or collect dust in the Senate.
First, consider abortion-related measures. The House wasted little time making good on many lawmakers’ commitments to uphold the sanctity of human life. In its first major item of business, the House voted to repeal the wildly unpopular 2010 health care reform law, which, among its manifold problems, authorizes abortion funding. That measure (H.R. 2) sailed through the House, 245-189. Two weeks later, the Senate blocked it.
Undeterred, the House in April took aim at defunding Obamacare for the 2011 fiscal year, casting a winning vote nearly identical to that on the repeal measure, 240-185; a majority in the Senate opposed. Then, in October, the House took aim yet again at the abortion components of Obamacare. A strong majority in the House voted to bar federal funding of elective abortion under health care reform. The House-passed Protect Life Act’s (H.R. 358) present status: idling in the Senate.
Confronted by defeats in the Senate, the House has sought out other means to protect Americans from being forced to subsidize the abortion industry. In April, the lower chamber made a serious attempt to defund Planned Parenthood—the nation’s largest abortion provider, which receives $363 million in government grants and contracts each year—for the 2011 budget year. That House success met defeat on the other side of the Capitol hours later.
In May, the lower chamber passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 3), which would apply a government-wide prohibition on elective abortion funding. The much-needed measure would make permanent in the law a series of pro-life riders, as they are known, that hang in the balance each year. Tally it as another major victory for pro-lifers—only to collect dust in the Senate.
Religious liberty issues have fared little better. For its part, the House took several key steps toward advancing religious freedom abroad. One example: passage of the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act to create the position of special envoy to monitor and promote religious liberty for religious minorities in those severely persecuted regions. H.R. 440 is non-controversial. Just 20 representatives objected. And the Senate’s response? Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) companion bill (S. 1245) languishes there.
Amid the series of stonewalled measures in 2011, one notable bright spot came just in time for Christmas. The Senate took the important step of reauthorizing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan watchdog agency that monitors the status of religious freedom around the world. Otherwise, USCIRF would have been forced to shutter operations by year’s end. The eleventh hour vote followed by President Obama’s signature means the invaluable commission will continue, albeit restructured and on a reduced budget, for three more years. It was not an easy victory, however. The House, it’s worth noting, had passed a reauthorization three months earlier.
Similarly, the Senate has demonstrated little interest in getting the nation’s fiscal house in order. In July, the House passed a sensible measure to cut spending both in the immediate term and over the next decade, while also requiring passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment before the nation’s debt ceiling could be raised. Two hundred thirty-four representatives considered “Cut, Cap, and Balance” a strong first step. Two-thirds of Americans backed the plan. To many, a rare instance of House-Senate agreement on a responsible measure seemed plausible. Yet an insufficient number in the Senate concurred, sowing defeat once more.
The success followed by defeat storyline could easily breed discouragement among social conservatives. But it should not. The fact that several key pro-life, pro-family values issues have been given a hearing—and landed winning votes—in the House should instill encouragement in the hearts of evangelicals. That happened because the public demanded it of the “people’s house.”
Now, in 2012, the pressure must fall increasingly on the Senate. As the new legislative year soon gets underway, the public ought to remind their elected officials in both the House and Senate why they were sent to Washington: to do the people’s work. And for millions of Americans, that means advancing sound policies that uphold pro-life, pro-family values. To be sure, Congress, collectively, and the Senate, particularly, will need plenty of outside help to write a different chapter for 2012 than 2011.