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.
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.
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.