The 111th Congress, which just concluded, began two years ago with an aggressive agenda complicated by an ailing economy that would throw a great many challenges in our path. We tackled these challenges head-on and put our nation on a path to recovery from the worst recession in generations. At the same time, we succeeded in extending access to quality, affordable health care to 30 million Americans, expanding the availability of credit to small businesses, protecting children and consumers, and helping to strengthen the civil rights of all Americans from the abuses of big business and big government.

Many Marylanders are still hurting, especially those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. But the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress, helped to stem the very worst of the recent recession. The package helped to save or create millions of jobs by making unprecedented investments in our nation’s infrastructure. It helped people stay in their homes, keep their jobs, and take care of their families.

One of the most successful provisions in the Recovery Act was one that I was proud to author – a refundable tax credit for first-time homebuyers. Declining sales and home values, along with rising foreclosure rates, were at the root of our recession. The first-time homebuyers’ tax-credit made a real difference in the housing market, bolstering consumer confidence and jumpstarting sales. Millions of consumers also were helped by strong new protections for credit card users, as well as another key provision that I authored – a permanent increase in FDIC insurance protections for savings.

Congress also took on Wall Street, providing a common-sense regulatory structure to protect our nation from another financial crisis and ending their reckless gambling with people’s life savings. I led a critical effort to bring transparency and financial accountability to the oil, gas and mining industry. We then turned our attention to small businesses, historically the heart of any economic recovery and leaders in job creation. As a member of the Senate Small Business Committee, I successfully fought to increase the Small Business Administration’s outreach and resources by $137 million and I pushed to increase limits for the SBA Surety Bond program from $2 million to $5 million. Congress also created a new Small Business Lending Fund, helping to address the serious credit crunch facing American small businesses.

While Congress acted to stabilize our economy, it was essential that we also turned our attention to health care, one of the fastest growing expenses for American families and businesses. Americans spend on health care $2.4 trillion per year or 15 percent of our Gross Domestic Product – twice as much as the next most expensive nation in the world. Those numbers would have continued to increase dramatically every year if we did not act.

The Affordable Care Act finally established the framework for universal, affordable quality care for every American. Many Americans have already benefited from such popular provisions as allowing children under age 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance, prohibiting discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, and blocking insurance companies from dropping coverage when you get sick. We have taken steps necessary to close the prescription drug “donut hole” that has threatened the financial security of far too many seniors and we’ve ensured that individuals, families and small businesses will no longer be burdened by uncontrollable and unpredictable increases in health care costs. This new law strengthens Medicare, ends abusive insurance company practices, protects patients, promotes prevention and wellness, keeps medical decisions in the hands of doctors, and brings down the federal deficit.

Patients come first in the health care reform passed by Congress. I’m particularly pleased that the new law includes provisions I authored to strengthen protections through a Patients’ Bill of Rights and guarantee proper oral health care for our children. I also led the successful fight to codify the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities, correcting a long-standing bias in our health care system that was ill-equipped to deal with disparities among different populations, particular minorities.

I have been proud to represent Maryland in the 111th Congress and have worked hard to protect our local economy. We are making unprecedented road and transit investments to handle the tens of thousands of new jobs coming to Maryland thanks to BRAC. I’ve led the fight to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, which is an economic engine as well as environmental treasure, wrote the law that ensures that the federal government pays its fair share for stormwater pollution running off its facilities, and authored comprehensive reforms in our drinking and wastewater infrastructure programs. We’ve also made major investments in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and the C&O Canal National Park, including restoration of the historic Catoctin Aqueduct and repairs to the Big Slackwater Towpath. And we’ve provided federal support for key transportation projects that will ease traffic congestion and related pollution including dedicated funding for Metro, upgrades for MARC, and resources to replace buses statewide with clean-fuel alternative vehicles.

Nationally, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was honored to participate in the confirmation hearings for two Supreme Court justices. I used the opportunity to highlight the real consequences Supreme Court decisions have on the lives of every day Americans and the real threats to our civil rights. I was a proud cosponsor of the successful fight to repeal our military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and equally proud that one of the very first pieces of legislation we passed helped to level the playing field for women who have been discriminated against in the workplace through unequal pay. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I’ve helped carry this fight internationally, by working to raise awareness of gender issues in how the U.S. distributes its foreign aid. We also capped this Congressional session by ratifying the New START Treaty with Russia. Not only does this treaty enhance our national security but it serves as a significant step forward in helping to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide.

When Congress reconvenes in January to begin its 112th session, our priority will be to continue to promote domestic job growth and help boost our nation’s economy while protecting middle-income Americans from further economic hardship. Thankfully, we will be building on a strong foundation of strategic investments that have pointed our economy back in the right direction.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin represents Maryland in the U.S. Senate.