Yesterday at noon, the 111th Congress of the United States expired. Its acomplishments have been somewhat overshadowed by last November's election and the particular partisan spin that the winners (with the connivance of the media and the passivity of the losers) have given to that election. That said, the 111th Congress was an amzingly productive one. Its legislative accomplishments include the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the 2009 Stimulus Program, the 2010 Health Care Reform, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kinds Act, the "Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010," the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the "Food Safety and Modernization Act," the ratification of a new START Treaty, and countless other important but barely noted legislative acts.
The 112th Congress convenes tomorrow, and the new House of Representatives is promising us a largely for-show vote to repeal the Health Insurance Reform. It will be interesting to see if the Democrats who, incredibly, during the election campaign seemed to run away from what history may well regard as the 111th Congress's most momentous single achievement will now step up to defend it - perhaps even explaining to the American people what would be the benefits of an effective health insurance reform and the relevance of some such reform for any intelligent deficit-reduction effort. (In practice, that may become moot if and when the Supreme Court rules the insurance mandate unconstitutional, but that is a whole other dimension of the issue which will have to await the progress of an upredictable judicial process - particularly unpredictable legally in this case because of the novelty of the question.)
Historians will undoubtedly debate whether or not this was the best way to attempt to resolve our increasingly unsustainably expensive system of allocating health care. Perhaps, we would have been better off in the long run if President Nixon had succeeded back in the 1970s in universalizing Medicare. Of course, Medicare may itself eventually prove unsustainable in its present form, but universalizing it would only have exacerbated that problem and moved its urgency forward in time, which might possibly have been a good thing. Anything that forces us to face up honestly to the mess we have unjustly chosen to bequeath to future generations is, to that extent at least, laudable.
Whatever happens in regard to any particular legislation, one would like to believe that the 112th Congress will in fact finally start facing up to some of our fundamental social problems . Whether that is a realistic hope, given the almost complete breakdown of our civic culture in recent decades as each of our two great political parties has become ideologically narrower and more militantly so, remains to be seen.
The broad coalitions that were the American political parties of my formative years are effectively gone, and with them most of the axioms of the political science I studied and taught earlier in life. Neither party seems capable of offering a compelling vision of a good society - let alone how to get from here to there. In terms of the foundational political divide that has set the general terms for political debate throughout most of American history, I suppose I remain more or less a Hamiltonian in continuing to affirm the desireability of an effective and "energetic" government (albeit limited in its ultimate range) to foster the kind of civil society that is most conducive to the security, prosperity, and social and moral well-being of citizens.
But do we want to be citizens anymore?