The highly polarized 112th Congress posed extreme challenges for the advancement of civil and human rights. In fact, in the House of Representatives, the number of members who supported The Leadership Conference’s position on 90 percent or more of the votes in our voting record fell to 168 from 196 in the 111th Congress. In historical terms, the 112th Congress was one of the least productive on record – and one of the least popular – as Congress' approval rating plummeted to an all-time low of 10 percent. Even routine business – such as raising the debt ceiling and confirming highly qualified judicial and executive branch nominees – fell victim to obstruction, brinkmanship, and political posturing ahead of the 2012 elections and President Obama's bid for a second term.
The November 2010 midterm elections returned divided government to Washington along with a far more conservative – and sometimes extremist – agenda driven by the tea party movement and its insistence on shrinking government, eliminating regulations, and repealing signature achievements of the 111th Congress. With tea party support, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives with 242 members – their largest majority since the 1940s. Democrats maintained control of the Senate, but their majority fell from 59 seats in the 111th Congress to 53 seats (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats) in the 112th Congress.
The tragic assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D. Ariz., in early January 2011 in which six people were killed, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, fostered a short-lived period of bipartisan civility. But this spirit soon gave way to the new political dynamic of paralyzing gridlock and dysfunction in which the congressional agenda was held hostage to the extreme demands of the tea party. As a result, very little was accomplished in the 112th Congress. The hyper-gridlock between the House and Senate resulted in the failure to pass even the most routine legislation, like the farm bill and a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The House continued to pass bills to undo the fabric of government, which included attacks on federal safety net programs, immigrants, voting rights, the LGBT community, organized labor, and even the census. Many of these bills failed or were not considered in the Senate, however.
Despite a fragile economic recovery and continued high unemployment – especially for African Americans, Latinos, and young people – tea party Republicans pushed an agenda focused on cutting government spending to the exclusion of job creation. During the 112th Congress, the House passed multiple bills to slash funding for crucial federal programs, as well as to safety net programs that provide food and health care to those who can least afford it. The House’s budget proposals also sought to end Medicare’s guarantee of health care for seniors by turning it into an underfunded voucher program. Fortunately, the Senate rejected many of these extreme cuts.
What should have been a routine increase to the debt ceiling last year ignited the most bruising battle of the 112th Congress, which brought the government perilously close to a catastrophic default. Using the debt ceiling deadline as leverage, Republicans forced a complicated eleventh-hour deal with the White House to immediately reduce spending by nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. The deal also created a temporary, bipartisan House-Senate “supercommittee” charged with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. The supercommittee’s failure to do so triggered $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts ("sequestration") that will begin in January 2013, half of which will come from defense spending. While funding for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and veterans benefits were largely spared from the sequester, the threat of drastic cuts to education, housing, and other important federal priorities looms large unless Congress revisits the deal after the election. Since the deal, many House members have been determined to reverse the defense cuts they agreed to, and instead cut deeply into safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid.
Congress will also have to revisit the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, which the House this year voted to extend for all taxpayers – even millionaires and billionaires – even though doing so would increase the budget deficit they claim they want to reduce. The Senate, meanwhile, voted for a more balanced approach that would keep the cuts in place for taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year.
Following the debate over the debt ceiling, President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act in a speech to a joint session of Congress in the fall 2011, allowing a long-overdue debate on job creation to finally get underway. The comprehensive jobs package offered by the administration included a mixture of tax cuts, infrastructure funding and state support for teachers and first responders designed to put people back to work and put the nation on more sound economic footing. The Senate made several attempts to bring up the bill or various parts of the bill, but all of the efforts were filibustered, and the House leadership refused to bring the bill up at all. Only a small piece of the bill that provided incentives for hiring veterans became law. In the place of a job strategy, the House continued to push deregulation throughout both sessions of Congress.
The polarization of the House was evidenced by the decision of House Republicans to make repeal of the Affordable Care Act – Obama’s landmark health reform law – a high priority, and it was one of the first major votes of the 112th Congress. While the repeal bill passed the House twice (the second time occurred after the Supreme Court upheld most provisions of the law), it was a symbolic effort, as it had no chance of being considered in the Senate. And in one of the most polarizing votes of the entire 112th Congress, the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for allegedly refusing to produce documents relating to the “Fast and Furious” operation.
The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which the 111th Congress passed to rein in the casino ways of Wall Street that were largely responsible for the nation’s economic woes, also came under attack. The House voted to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and made several attempts to cripple the agency through the budget and appropriations process. Senate Republicans vowed to refuse to allow a vote on any nominee to head the CFPB unless the bureau was revamped and weakened. Carrying through on the threat, the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the CFPB was blocked by a filibuster in December 2011. Undeterred, the following month, Obama used his constitutional authority to install Cordray as a recess appointment.
Continuing a pattern begun in the 111th Congress, filibusters were a frequent weapon of choice for the Senate minority to block many of the president’s executive and judicial nominees. The confirmation of judicial nominees was especially slow despite a high number of vacancies on the federal bench. Many of these vacancies have been deemed “judicial emergencies” because of heavy caseloads. In fact as of October 1, 2012, there are now more vacancies than when Obama took office. Most nominees who did make it through the process were inexplicably forced to wait months for a floor vote, only to pass with unanimous or near unanimous support. For example, it took several months for the Senate to confirm – by voice vote, meaning they were noncontroversial – Andrew Carter to the U.S. District Court of Southern New York and Dana L. Christensen to the U.S. District Court of Montana. Other highly qualified nominees were filibustered, however, such as law professor Goodwin Liu and Caitlin Halligan, a former New York solicitor general. Eventually, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R. Ky., announced he would filibuster all nominations, even those with strong bipartisan support, until the November election. As Congress went on recess until after the election, 19 nominees were left pending on the Senate floor but never got an up-or-down vote.
In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, in late June 2012, the House and Senate did manage to agree to a one-year extension of low interest rates for federally subsidized student loans, which could help as many as seven million students. The bill also maintained federal transportation funding levels for the next 27 months.
Congress clearly has much work to do in the 113th Congress, especially with approaching deadlines to address the budget sequester, the expiring Bush tax cuts and other tax and budget issues. Needless to say, the outcome of these and many other issues will hinge on the 2012 election.
About The Leadership Conference
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. Through advocacy and outreach to targeted constituencies, The Leadership Conference works toward the goal of a more open and just society – an America as good as its ideals. Founded in 1950, The Leadership Conference works to effect meaningful legislation, policies, and executive branch appointments, and to ensure the proper enforcement of civil rights laws to unite us as a nation true to its promise of equal justice, equal opportunity, and mutual respect.
Reading The Leadership Conference Voting Record
Based on these votes, each member of Congress earns a percentage rating for support of The Leadership Conference priorities. This rating cannot indicate the full extent of a legislator’s support for or opposition to The Leadership Conference positions and represents neither endorsement nor condemnation of any member of Congress.
The Leadership Conference has taken a sample of bills considered during the 112th Congress. The Leadership Conference Voting Record was created with the bills in this sample. This sample of bills reflects how members of Congress have aligned with The Leadership Conference priority areas from the beginning of the 112th Congress through September 2012.
A vote in accordance with The Leadership Conference’s position is a “+” vote; a vote contrary to The Leadership Conference’s position is a “-” vote. A “(+)” or “(-)” reflects the announced position of the member, but is not reflected in the overall “report total.” An “x” indicates a yea or nay vote was not cast. An “i” indicates the member of Congress was not in office for the full term. The Leadership Conference Voting Record reflects only roll call votes that were officially recorded on the floor of the U.S. Senate or U.S. House of Representatives.
In the House during the 112th Congress, Rep. Jane Harmon, D. Calif., resigned in February 2011; Rep. Chris Lee, R. N.Y., resigned in February 2011; Rep. Anthony Weiner, D. N.Y., resigned in June 2011; Rep. David Wu, D. Ore., resigned in August 2011; Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D. Ariz., resigned in January 2012; Rep. Jay Inslee, D. Wash., resigned in March 2012; Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R. Mich., resigned in July 2012; Rep. Geoff Davis, R. Ky., resigned in July 2012; Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D, Calif., resigned in August 2012; Rep. Mark Amodei, R. Nev., won a special election in May 2011; Rep. Kathleen Hochul, D. N.Y., won a special election in May 2011; Rep. Janice Hahn, D. Calif., won a special election in July 2011; Rep. Robert Turner, R. N.Y., won a special election in September 2011; Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D. Ore., won a special election in January 2012; Rep. Ron Barber, D. Ariz, won a special election in June 2012.
In the Senate during the 112th Congress, Sen. John Ensign, R. Nev., resigned in May 2011, and Sen. Dean Heller, R. Nev., was appointed in May 2011.
The votes of the District of Columbia (D.C.) delegate do not appear in The Leadership Conference Voting Record because although District residents must pay federal taxes, they are not given voting representation in Congress.
The Leadership Conference Voting Record for the 112th Congress reflects positions taken by every senator and representative on the legislative priorities of The Leadership Conference and its coalition members.
The Leadership Conference can count on 168 House members and 50 senators to support its priorities on 90 percent or more of the votes in The Leadership Conference Voting Record.
For more information, please contact The Leadership Conference’s Public Policy Department at 202.466.3311.
 Newport, Frank. "Congress Approval Ties All-Time Low at 10%." Gallup Politics. August 14, 2012.