It was a remarkable moment.
There was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., probably the most liberal member of the Senate, heaping praise not only on his colleague, Barbara Boxer of California, but on one of the Senate’s most conservative members, James Inhofe, the climate-change denier from Oklahoma, for working together to come up with a highway bill. “Senator Inhofe and I have very little in common politically,” Sanders said. “But I also wish to applaud him and his staff for coming together on this issue and doing something that is extremely important and doing it in a bipartisan way.”
OMG, as the saying goes. As has been much-remarked upon, Congress is actually getting some things done. Big highway bill? Check. Keeping student-loan rates from rising?Ditto. Passing a major revamp of the flood-insurance program? You betcha. Oh, and a massive farm bill cleared the Senate with a big bipartisan majority.
Was Congress overrun by kindness? Did the tea party go soft? Did Democrats cave? The real answer is that Congress got tired of the drama. Last year was a series of on-the-brink moments where some members—usually Republicans—would step out on the ledge with the country as hostage and threaten to jump. First there was the near government shutdown in the spring of 2011, then the exhausting fight over the debt ceiling in the summer when members seemed willing to let the U.S. go into default if the budget wasn’t cut. The compromise gave us the little-mourned super committee among other treats, and another on-the-ledge moment over the extension of payroll-tax cuts and the “doc fix” for Medicare reimbursements that almost led to millions of Americans seeing their taxes go up.
The gun-to-the-head approach to governing proved less than enduring, but it doesn’t mean we’ve entered an era of good feeling. In some ways, Congress has picked off the low-hanging fruit. Now we’re in for a stretch where the parties are unlikely to agree—again.
Expiration of the Bush tax cuts? Despite some signs of a thaw in the Republican position on taxes and less fealty to Grover Norquist, there’s just no appetite for a big tax hike on upper-income families. Conversely, Democrats feel like they got rolled in 2010 on extending the Bush tax cuts without enough preconditions. (President Obama was asked at a press conference by a National Journal reporter why he didn’t insist on a hike in the debt ceiling as part of his deal to extend the Bush tax cuts. He looked incredulous and said that the Republicans would never use the debt-ceiling hike to extract cuts. Oops.) Everyone is talking lame duck, but no one has a good answer for how Congress can get through it.
Cybersecurity is another area where Congress seems likely to fail. A bill passed the House that would allow more data sharing between industry and government, but the White House has issued a veto threat and is pushing an alternative that would set government cybersecurity standards. In a case like this, where the approaches—market versus government—are fundamentally different, there’s no easy rapprochement. When it comes to appropriations bills or something like the farm bill, there are enough areas where you can split the difference. Here, it’s tougher.
And now that the Supreme Court has struck down Congress’s ability to withhold funding from states that don’t go along with the Medicaid expansion encouraged by the Affordable Care Act, who is going to fix that? There are still a lot of incentives for states to go along, but any number of governors have said that they’re not going to comply. Without the cudgel of cuts, what can Congress do? Agree on a fix that would pass judicial muster? Not likely.
Nominations? They’re backed up in the Senate like planes over O’Hare. There’s not going to be a lot of movement on that front.
It’s easy to see Congress as a timepiece, broken or working. But that’s not the right metaphor. Congress is more like traffic which can sometimes be backed up, sometimes smooth, and sometimes a combination of both—ever sensitive to the actions of a few. If someone’s car breaks down on a bridge, it backs up traffic for miles. Same with a rogue senator. Sometimes, Congress can get around the mess. In that highway bill, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threatened to hold up the measure over an amendment that would have determined when life begins—a question not usually associated with bridges and tunnels. Congress found a way around blastulas and zygotes and kept the bill moving. But we’re going into a more contentious period, a traffic jam, with fewer Sanders-Inhofe moments.