Glimmers of Hope on the Hill

After years of dysfunction, there are signs that Congress is starting to work again.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks while flanked by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (L) on January 29, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. The US Senate is holding a cloture vote on the Keystone XL Pipeline. 
National Journal
April 20, 2015, 4 p.m.

The term “green shoots” is in­creas­ingly be­ing used to de­scribe the first pos­it­ive signs of growth after an eco­nom­ic down­turn. It is now pos­sible to say that we are see­ing green shoots on Cap­it­ol Hill, signs that the in­sti­tu­tion of Con­gress may be be­com­ing a bit less dys­func­tion­al than it has been in re­cent years.

It has a long way to go be­fore it gets back to where it was 30 or more years ago, when it did func­tion reas­on­ably well. Still, as vet­er­an Con­gress-watch­er Billy Moore puts it, “For years, no one in Wash­ing­ton lost money bet­ting against Con­gress, but this time they might.”

The first sign that things might be chan­ging was just after last Novem­ber’s elec­tion, when a gov­ern­ment shut­down was avoided without the pyro­tech­nics seen in the re­cent past. More re­cently, with the deal on the Medi­care “doc fix” and ex­ten­sion of the Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram, the House and Sen­ate passing budget res­ol­u­tions and the con­firm­a­tion of a fed­er­al judge, things seem like they are start­ing to move.

(RE­LATED: How Wash­ing­ton De­railed Amtrak)

Moore—a Demo­crat who spent more than two dec­ades on the Hill, work­ing on both the Sen­ate and House sides, and is now a highly-re­garded lob­by­ist—cred­its three things for chan­ging the zeit­geist of Con­gress in re­cent months.

First, Speak­er John Boehner has built a suf­fi­ciently strong net­work of House Re­pub­lic­ans to ef­fect­ively isol­ate those in his con­fer­ence who seek to de­pose him, and, when ne­ces­sary, has sought and re­ceived sup­port from a will­ing Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi and Demo­crats in or­der to get things through the cham­ber. The chem­istry in the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence had to change. Boehner pa­tiently waited it out, and then when he could, star­ted mov­ing the le­gis­lat­ive ball for­ward. Pelosi should be cred­ited as well for tak­ing on a con­struct­ive role in craft­ing agree­ments when some in her party pre­ferred her to be more of an ob­struc­tion­ist.

Second, Moore says Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s open­ing up the amend­ment pro­cess has made a huge dif­fer­ence. It hasn’t al­ways suc­ceeded, but this is the way the Sen­ate was in­ten­ded to func­tion; this change en­abled the pro­cess to be­gin work­ing again.

Third, even in the last Con­gress when the Sen­ate floor was still bottled up, Sen­ate com­mit­tee chair­men (at the time, Demo­crats) and the rank­ing mem­bers (Re­pub­lic­ans) began quietly talk­ing about what they would like to do if things star­ted be­com­ing move­able on the floor. The chair­man and rank­ing roles re­versed after the elec­tion, but the dia­logue con­tin­ued, and when the door to the Sen­ate floor opened, they rushed through it.

(RE­LATED: 2016 Hope­fuls Split as Sen­ate Sends Doc-Fix Bill to Obama)

Wheth­er it was Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Or­rin Hatch and rank­ing mem­ber Ron Wyden on tax and trade, or even En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Chair­man James In­hofe and rank­ing mem­ber Bar­bara Box­er, hon­est ef­forts to move le­gis­la­tion for­ward have be­gun. We star­ted see­ing some real lead­er­ship and will­ing­ness to make com­prom­ises at the com­mit­tee level, es­sen­tial for the pro­cess to work. There is hope that the chem­istry will be bet­ter between Mc­Con­nell and Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, who is slated to take over as the Demo­crat­ic lead­er after the 2016 elec­tion, than it has been with re­tir­ing Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

Moore ar­gues that as the budget pro­cess con­tin­ues to the con­fer­ence and re­con­cili­ation stages—nor­mally the most par­tis­an as ma­jor­ity parties “cut out the minor­ity be­cause they can”— we may now see a change, move­ment on meas­ures through the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess that were un­able to move for­ward on their own, such as a high­way bill and cor­por­ate tax re­form.

A just-re­leased study by the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter quan­ti­fies some of these changes. The group, foun­ded by a group of former Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate lead­ers, re­leased their first “Healthy Con­gress In­dex” show­ing that in the first three months of the 114th Con­gress, “the House and Sen­ate had more work­ing days in the first quarter of 2015 than either did at this point dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two Con­gresses. The House had 36 work­ing days this past quarter and 29 and 34 work­ing days, re­spect­ively, dur­ing the first three months of the pre­vi­ous two Con­gresses. The Sen­ate had 43 work­ing days in Wash­ing­ton last quarter, which com­pares fa­vor­ably with the 30 and 33 days at this point dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two Con­gresses.”

The second thing the BPC study looked at was “reg­u­lar or­der,” the com­mit­tee pro­cess, floor de­bate, and con­fer­ence com­mit­tees. The study found that “the first three months of the 114th Con­gress showed a burst of en­ergy, with con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees re­port­ing bills in high­er num­bers than dur­ing re­cent Con­gresses. The House ordered re­por­ted 31 bills in the first quarter of 2015, which ex­ceeds the eight and 24 bills ordered re­por­ted at this point dur­ing the 112th and the 113th, re­spect­ively. The Sen­ate ordered re­por­ted 15 bills in the first quarter of 2015, which ex­ceeds the eight bills ordered re­por­ted by this point dur­ing each of the 112th and the 113th Con­gresses.”

Fi­nally, the study looked at the ex­tent that the Sen­ate was de­bat­ing le­gis­la­tion and al­low­ing ma­jor­ity- and minor­ity-party amend­ments. “This Sen­ate in its first three months con­sidered 202 amend­ments,” the re­port noted. “This is the second-highest among the Con­gresses re­flec­ted in the in­dex. Of those, the ma­jor­ity offered 97 amend­ments, and the minor­ity offered 105 amend­ments. About three-quar­ters of these amend­ments were to the budget res­ol­u­tion. But even ex­clud­ing budget votes, this Sen­ate has al­lowed more votes on amend­ments than at this point dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two Con­gresses. And it did al­low the most votes on a budget res­ol­u­tion than any re­cent Con­gress the in­dex meas­ures.”

Maybe the green shoots really are com­ing through.

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