Beneath the Battles, a Congress That Worked

Even as Republicans fought Democrats—and each other—2015 saw the passage of a long list of difficult, wide-ranging bills.

President Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and Rep. Mia Love of Utah bow their heads for a prayer during an event to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, at Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill on Dec. 9.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Dec. 18, 2015, 1 p.m.

In 2015, House con­ser­vat­ives over­threw Speak­er John Boehner. They en­dangered fund­ing for the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity, and couldn’t move ap­pro­pri­ations bills be­cause of a dis­pute over the Con­fed­er­ate flag. The new Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate stalled for sev­er­al weeks on a hu­man-traf­fick­ing bill over abor­tion lan­guage. And on the au­gust Sen­ate floor, Ted Cruz called his own party lead­er, Mitch Mc­Con­nell, a li­ar.

But even in a year of ran­cor, the first Con­gress con­trolled by Re­pub­lic­ans in nine years over­came its own ideo­lo­gic­al di­vides to push through sev­er­al mo­ment­ous re­forms that had be­deviled pre­vi­ous ma­jor­it­ies—all un­der Pres­id­ent Obama and with a uni­fied Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic minor­ity able and will­ing to block bills.

After delay­ing its self-im­posed dead­lines, Con­gress on Fri­day fin­ished work on a massive, $1.15 tril­lion pack­age to fund the gov­ern­ment and an­oth­er $622 bil­lion tax bill that will provide dozens of breaks to be­ne­fit busi­nesses, in­di­vidu­als, and fam­il­ies. The end-of-the-year le­gis­la­tion will lift a 40-year-old ban on oil ex­ports and ex­tend sol­ar, wind, child, earned-in­come, and re­search and de­vel­op­ment tax cred­its. The most sig­ni­fic­ant cy­ber­se­cur­ity le­gis­la­tion in years will hitch a ride, as will in­struc­tions al­low­ing Cap­it­ol Hill sled­ding.

In its first year, the 114th Con­gress solved big, en­trenched prob­lems, fo­cus­ing on is­sues both sides wanted to tackle. After 13 years of No Child Left Be­hind, Con­gress passed a ma­jor over­haul that will dra­mat­ic­ally re­duce the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s role in U.S. edu­ca­tion policy. After a dozen years punt­ing on a flawed for­mula for Medi­care pay­ments for doc­tors, Con­gress found a long-term, $200 bil­lion solu­tion. And after a dec­ade of stop­gap trans­port­a­tion bills, Con­gress com­prom­ised on a $305 bil­lion fix to the coun­try’s groan­ing in­fra­struc­ture.

The two parties were able to agree on a budget deal that lif­ted caps for both de­fense and dis­cre­tion­ary fund­ing and, even more sig­ni­fic­antly, raise the al­ways-treach­er­ous fed­er­al debt ceil­ing so it does not need to be ad­dressed again un­til 2017.

It provided Obama and the next pres­id­ent with en­hanced trade-ne­go­ti­at­ing powers, pav­ing the way for his­tor­ic pacts with Pa­cific Rim and European coun­tries. It moved the bulk col­lec­tion of metadata on Amer­ic­ans’ phone calls from the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency to tele­com com­pan­ies. Aside from those un­sexy, sub­stan­tial ac­com­plish­ments, the GOP-led Con­gress sent mes­sages to the pres­id­ent’s desk—to au­thor­ize the Key­stone XL pipeline and re­peal Obama­care, and their vis­ion of a bal­anced budget.

“Look­ing back on it now, when you start tick­ing all those things off, giv­en what we’ve been deal­ing with the past sev­er­al years, it’s pretty re­mark­able,” said Sen. John Thune, a mem­ber of GOP lead­er­ship. “It’s ex­ceeded my ex­pect­a­tions about what we could do in a di­vided gov­ern­ment, but con­sist­ent with what we hoped would hap­pen when we got the ma­jor­ity.”

There are a num­ber of reas­ons for Con­gress’s suc­cesses, which ap­peared to have zero im­pact on its lice-like pop­ular­ity. The GOP lead­er­ship pro­moted is­sues that met the “art of the pos­sible” cri­ter­ia. Even Thune ac­know­ledges that many of these bills were “loose ends” left over from pre­vi­ous Con­gresses, but he still sensed a change in how Con­gress worked at vari­ous points throughout the year, par­tic­u­larly when the Sen­ate Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee un­an­im­ously passed its K-12 re­write in April. “This is an ex­ample of how this place ought to work,” he said.

That bill was a high-wa­ter mark. The top le­gis­lat­ors—Sens. Lamar Al­ex­an­der and Patty Mur­ray—steered it on the floor amid dozens of amend­ments and po­ten­tially pois­on­ous pro­pos­als be­fore it passed in the Sen­ate and, in an altered form, sailed through the House.

“This could have run off the track many, many times over trans­gender bath­rooms or school vouch­ers or try­ing to add a huge early-child edu­ca­tion pro­gram,” said Al­ex­an­der in an in­ter­view. “But Sen­at­or Mur­ray is res­ult-ori­ented, I am as well, and what we de­cided to do was to find how much we could agree on and do that.

“What we found out is that we could agree on most things,” he ad­ded.

Mc­Con­nell and the new House speak­er, Paul Ry­an, have taken cred­it for open­ing up the pro­cess in their cham­bers. Mc­Con­nell has touted the fact that the Sen­ate has taken up many more roll-call votes on amend­ments, provid­ing a con­trast to the times when con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats chafed un­der the grip of former Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

“We wer­en’t able to do those oth­er bills that we have done this year in the past be­cause Sen­at­or Re­id didn’t al­low the Sen­ate to func­tion,” said GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. “You can’t do much if a bill is not al­lowed to be on the floor. You can’t do much if there are no amend­ments. You can’t do much if com­mit­tees aren’t al­lowed to func­tion. And that was the way the Sen­ate was be­ing run.”

But Demo­crats charge that Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have strangled the pro­cess of con­firm­ing nom­in­ees, which Sen­ate Demo­crats changed when they were in power as they de­cried Re­pub­lic­an ob­struc­tion­ism. For the bills Con­gress has passed this year, Demo­crats con­tend that much of it has to do with their re­l­at­ive will­ing­ness to co­oper­ate.

“Nearly every ma­jor bi­par­tis­an bill we have passed this year could have be­come law in years past if Re­pub­lic­ans had not blocked them, ob­struc­ted them, fili­bustered them,” said Re­id, now minor­ity lead­er, earli­er this month. “I say to my Re­pub­lic­an friends, you get no cred­it for passing le­gis­la­tion now that Re­pub­lic­ans blocked then. It doesn’t work that way.”

Adds Demo­crat­ic Sen. Joe Manchin, “Harry made a lot of mis­takes—and he’d be the first to tell you that, I’m sure—but at least if we see something and we see a path­way for­ward, the Demo­crats are will­ing to move it.”

Con­ser­vat­ives also grew frus­trated that the GOP-led Con­gress didn’t strip fund­ing from Planned Par­ent­hood after a series of videos from an an­ti­abor­tion group pur­por­ted that the or­gan­iz­a­tion was il­leg­ally selling fetal tis­sue. Oth­ers failed in their ef­fort to bottle up the refugee-vet­ting pro­cess after the Par­is ter­ror­ist at­tacks. And some grew ex­as­per­ated that Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts to boost de­fense spend­ing re­quired a surge in nondefense spend­ing too. On Thursday, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mike Lee called the tax and spend­ing bills an “in­sult to the Amer­ic­an people.

“Here we are again: an­oth­er year of le­gis­lat­ive dys­func­tion capped by an un­demo­crat­ic, un-re­pub­lic­an pro­cess that uses the threat of an­oth­er man­u­fac­tured crisis to im­pose on an un­will­ing coun­try the same broken gov­ern­ment policies that have re­peatedly failed the people they are sup­posed to serve,” Lee said.

But, of late, the cri­ti­cism from con­ser­vat­ives has usu­ally been soft or isol­ated. This week, the House and Sen­ate passed both the tax and spend­ing bills with sig­ni­fic­ant levels of Re­pub­lic­an sup­port.

Iron­ic­ally, Con­gress’s pro­duct­ive 2015 helps en­sure a less pro­duct­ive 2016. The decks have now been cleared of sev­er­al thorny top­ics that might have jumbled next year’s cal­en­dar. Sev­er­al oth­er im­port­ant, com­plex is­sues worthy of con­gres­sion­al at­ten­tion—like im­mig­ra­tion and tax re­form, and passing new au­thor­iz­a­tion to fight the Is­lam­ic State—ap­pear doomed to fade in the bright glare of a pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion year. Many on Cap­it­ol Hill are there­fore set­ting their sights even farther ahead—to 2017.

This art­icle has been up­dated.

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