Like it or not, the 111th Congress has been nothing if not productive. In two years, it has passed the stimulus bill, health care reform and an overhaul of financial industry regulations, along with a host of other bills, dealing with issues ranging from fair pay to hate crimes to credit cards. Perhaps we should not, then, be surprised that its lame duck session is on track, despite the political tumult that accompanied November's election, to be particularly productive as well. Late on Thursday night, the House of Representatives approved a massive tax bill that effectively amounts to a second stimulus, and it appears increasingly possible that the Senate will vote to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military.
What's particularly significant about these latest accomplishments is the manner in which they were achieved. Democrats pushed through almost every major piece of legislation during the last two years on the strength of their large majorities, garnering only a handful of Republican votes, and often none at all. But the lame duck session has been different.
Even though the new Republican majority has yet to take over in the House, or the new crop of Republicans to reduce the Democrats to a slim majority in the Senate, the paradigm has already shifted. The tax deal was negotiated between President Obama and Senate Republicans, and it amounts to a genuine compromise — both sides got things they wanted and accepted things they didn't. And the don't ask, don't tell repeal is gaining momentum after the House passed it as a standalone measure — not tacked on to a defense spending bill, as they had tried before. Now at least four Republicans have said they will back it, and it could come up for a vote as early as Saturday.
Partisanship certainly isn't dead — the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, for example, remains stalled in the Senate amid Republican objections that have little to do with our national security or foreign policy interests — but the lame duck session at least holds out hope that divided government won't be a recipe for total gridlock.
That's important because the country can't afford two years of partisan sniping, or even two years of Cintonesque legislating on small-bore issues like school uniforms. The economic recovery is still uncertain, and even if we return to solid growth and employment, we have to face the fact that huge budget deficits imperil our long-term prospects. Large majorities of the public and of Congress agreed that this second stimulus was necessary in the short term to build the recovery, but the rise of the tea party movement and the report of the president's debt commission this month have focused public attention across the political spectrum on the need to reign in future deficits.
It is certainly still possible that Republicans will revert to their strategy of simply blocking anything President Obama tries to do in hopes of weakening his re-election chances. But the behavior of Senate Republican leaders in the case of the tax legislation suggests they do feel some responsibility to govern, not just score political points, and the decision of House Democrats to go along with the legislation despite their objections to the portions of it that provide tax breaks to the rich shows they are still willing to line up behind the president on issues of broad national importance.
There are certainly limits to how far we can hope the spirit of compromise and bipartisan cooperation will extend — a bill dealing with the nation's energy needs and climate change or a comprehensive reform of immigration policy may be too much to ask for. But President Obama's support for pursuing a fundamental overhaul of the tax code presents intriguing possibilities. It's an idea with champions on the political right — most notably, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — and could serve the purpose of both stimulating the economy and increasing government revenue by lowering the tax rates and eliminating deductions.
The last time the nation undertook such a reform, during the 1980s, it took several years for the idea to become law. Perhaps that is the best we can hope for now, as well; between the complexity of the issue and the pressures of the 2012 presidential election, it may be impossible to build sufficient consensus to bring a tax overhaul to a vote in the next two years. But even serious negotiation about that idea and other ways to address long-term budget shortfalls would be an important accomplishment, particularly if it set the parameters for debate among candidates in 2012.
The next two years may not see as much high-profile legislation as the 111th Congress passed, but the 112th Congress could be productive nonetheless.