Bruce J. Schulman: Take a Bow, Nancy and Harry

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Bruce J. Schulman, the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University, is the author of "The Seventies" (DaCapo Press).]

With dozens of defeated and retiring members clearing out their offices, the 111th Congress finished work this week. Few are sad to see it go. According to a recent Gallup poll, only thirteen percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job; fully 83% disapprove, the most intense scorn for the national legislature in three decades. The Congressional leadership has fared little better: Promising to "fire" Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republican insurgents seized control of the House last month, while Senate leader Harry Reid clung to his seat against all odds, thanks to the extreme behavior of his Nevada opponent. It seems they can’t get out of town too soon.

Yet the flurry of activity this past week completes the work of the most effective Congress in a generation, one that has passed more historic legislation and transformed the American political landscape more than any since the 1960s. Like the Great 89th, the Congress that Lyndon B. Johnson swept into office with his 1964 landslide, this session re-wrote many of the fundamental rules of American life: eliminating barriers to full participation of gays and lesbians, subjecting the financial sector to regulatory oversight, and constructing a national health insurance program. And like its celebrated Johnson-era predecessor, this Congress has received little thanks for its achievements.

In the short term, the historical record suggests, the nation recoils against far-reaching change; it’s not unusual for the most successful Congressional majorities to lose seats in the next election as the American people collectively utter a breathless, “wait a minute.” But, if the lessons of the 1960s offer any guide, the brick-by-brick accretion of significant legislation can construct enduring new features of the political system....

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