Articles

Congress Is Finally Back On Track

April 22, 2015

The dysfunctional Congress finally appears to be working again as the Founders intended. Lawmakers are negotiating, voting on bills and actually passing legislation. As proof of this, National Journal’s Charlie Cook points to three things: congressional approval of a permanent “doc fix” to prevent cuts to physician reimbursements under Medicare; extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and passage of budget resolutions by the House and Senate.

There’s even more evidence. This week Senate Democrats agreed to move forward on a human-trafficking bill without undoing a 39-year-old ban on federal funding of abortion. In response, Senate Republicans cleared the way for a vote, scheduled Thursday, on President Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch.

Leaders on the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees fashioned a bipartisan agreement on Trade Promotion Authority, a plan to grant the president the ability to negotiate trade agreements with the guarantee of an up-or-down congressional vote.

House and Senate negotiators appear close to ironing out the differences between their budget resolutions. This will expedite consideration of appropriations bills that fit within the budget caps they agree to. The two chambers’ appropriations committees might even be on track to complete all 12 spending bills before the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1, which last happened in 1996.

Leadership aides say the House is readying a flood of bills aimed at helping the economy, ones that passed the chamber last session with bipartisan support, only to die in the Senate, blocked by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid. There’s even talk about passing a multiyear highway-funding bill and some form of corporate tax reform.

All of this is happening primarily because House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have restored regular order to their respective chambers. Lawmakers are now expected to work on bills in committee, grinding through the process, rather than waiting to have measures dropped from above without time to read, adjust or amend them. Nancy Pelosi’s philosophy of governing—“we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it”—is dead.

Members of Congress are working longer. The House had 24% more working days in this year’s first quarter than in the same period last year, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The Senate had 43% more working days.

Regular order means more amendments and more roll call votes. In the first quarter this year, the Senate considered 202 amendments, up from 134 in the same period last year, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. There were 15 roll-call votes in the Senate on amendments to the Keystone XL bill alone, more roll-call votes on amendments than the chamber had all last year.

Some of those votes are designed not to move legislation, but to put opponents in tough positions and embarrass them come election time. That said, limiting the number of amendments by parliamentary tricks made the Senate more dysfunctional, not less, and removed incentives to find common ground. By turning those in his majority into potted plants, Mr. Reid helped bring about defeat for his party last fall, giving Republicans control.

The changes in the House, perhaps less visible but more profound, started with one man. In 2010, the night before he was to appear at a Texas event, I and two others were dragooned at the last minute into dinner with then-Minority Leader John Boehner. 

Over dinner, Mr. Boehner was asked what was wrong with Congress. He answered with admirable candor. Under Mrs. Pelosi, he said, only five people mattered—the speaker, majority leader, majority whip and rules chairman, and then also the chairman of the subject-matter committee for the bill under consideration. Legislation was dictated from on high. Members were frozen out. As a result, the House stopping working as it had for 221 years.

This produced bad laws and inculcated terrible habits. Mr. Boehner vowed that if Republicans gained control, he would reverse the changes and make committees, subcommittees and members work again so that the House of Representatives would once more express the will of its members. 

That has led to difficulties, as when the House Republican Caucus decided (twice) to shut down the government. But the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. Among other things, the return to regular order offers the best chance of reining in this imperial president.

After years of dysfunction, the House and the Senate are finally acting as the Constitution prescribes. The process is ragged, sometimes ugly, rarely fast and never completely satisfactory. Congress may not become popular. But it is at least functioning and thus more likely to produce real answers to the country’s challenges. After the Reid and Pelosi years, that ain’t nothin’.

A version of this article appeared April 23, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Congress Is Finally Back On Track and online at WSJ.com.

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