This past weekend’s action by Congress to fund the federal government for the balance of this fiscal year—except for the Homeland Security Department, which is funded only through February—is evidence of how dysfunctional Washington has become.
The omnibus bill was so big (1,600-plus pages) that virtually no one had time to read it. It was cobbled together by congressional leaders and presented as a fait accompli. The legislation included extraneous provisions and previously undiscussed spending cuts. Hating it, each party’s populist wing threatened retribution on its supporters.
Despite these failings, the passage of the bill achieved something important. Getting beyond stopgap funding measures, some only covering 45-60 days, cleared the decks, giving next year’s new Republican Congress time to prepare and pass the next fiscal year’s appropriations bills before it begins. This helps House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They both understand that short of electing a new president, the best way to mitigate Washington’s dysfunctionality is to operate in regular order—that is, to have legislation travel the long, often complicated, and deliberative path through which the Constitution intended.
They want to repair the enormous institutional damage Democrats inflicted on Congress in order to achieve President Obama ’s agenda. Under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and soon-to-be-former Senate Leader Harry Reid, only a handful of people mattered: They and their whips, the rules committee chairmen, and the chairmen of the committee of jurisdiction for a specific issue drafted bills and made decisions. Things worked from the top down, not the bottom up.
This is not how the Founders intended Congress to operate. When he became speaker in 2011, Mr. Boehner began returning power to committees and having the House operate (mostly) in regular order. It has not always been pretty or quick, but James Madison & Company meant for legislating to be difficult and slow.
Mr. McConnell also wants Senate committees to grind through proposed legislation, taking up more bills and allowing more amendments to be offered. He warns that operating under regular order will require senators to work longer, endure more lengthy debates and cast more votes. Mr. McConnell is also willing to make his own life more difficult by insuring that the minority has a role in a GOP-dominated Senate it did not have in the Reid-run body.
It will be important in the new Congress that Republicans advance a reform-minded conservative governing agenda that has bipartisan support. Before scoffing at this, consider that House Republicans have already passed scores of bills with Democratic support, only to see them die in the Senate.
The GOP should set a bipartisan tone by taking these bills up again, starting with measures to help the economy. For example, this past session 158 House Democrats voted for a GOP measure expanding access to charter schools. Another 130 House Democrats backed a Republican bill to end the expensive wave of junk lawsuits over patents.
While Mr. McConnell says the Senate will first take up the Keystone XL pipeline, there are other opportunities on energy: 46 House Democrats voted with Republicans to expedite exports of liquefied natural gas, 28 to expand oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, and 26 to expedite infrastructure for the development of natural gas.
Between 32 and 36 House Democrats also backed GOP measures to ban taxes on Internet access, to make it easier and less costly to invest in small businesses, to make government rule-making more transparent, and to stop an EPA proposal that would subject every stream, pond and ditch to federal jurisdiction.
Since Republicans want to move a comprehensive corporate tax-reform package, the fact that 53 House Democrats supported making permanent the immediate expensing of new equipment and software purchases, and 62 voted to make the research and development tax credit permanent, is a sign some Democrats will help make the tax code more growth-oriented.
There’s also evidence Democrats will help undo some of ObamaCare’s damaging provisions, like its definition of full-time work as 30 hours a week and its employee and employer mandates.
GOP House and Senate leaders sense a pent-up desire on Capitol Hill to get things done and not only among their own party. Democrats have also grown weary of being treated as bystanders by the Obama administration. So if Republicans play their cards right, the next two years could see conservative solutions pass with large bipartisan majorities. This would constitute hope and change not because of Mr. Obama, but despite him.
A version of this article appeared December 18, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Don't Scoff: Bipartisanship Is Possible In 2015 and online at WSJ.com.