By the end of 2014 Americans were fed up with Congress.
A Gallup poll from last fall showed that nearly four in five Americans disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job, which the poll showed was “less about what Congress is doing than about what it isn’t doing; putting aside partisan bickering and getting things done.” In an open-ended question that asked people why they disapproved of Congress’ performance 28 percent said partisan gridlock, 21 percent said that nothing was getting done, and 11 percent said members were prioritizing partisan politics over country.
As if to show how dismal things had gotten in our nation’s capital, news agencies began tallying bill signings to see if the 113th (2013-2014) Congress would challenge the title held by the 112th (2011-2012) for the least productive Congress in modern history. The answer, after a flurry of year-end activity was no, but just barely.
It came as little surprise then that a post-election poll found that around one-third of respondents said the Congress’ first priority should be fixing itself rather than on a specific issue. Fortunately, that’s exactly what incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to do.
“It’s time to change the business model,” he said earlier this year. “We need to return to regular order. We need to get committees working again. Sometimes, it’s going to mean working more often. Sometimes, it’s going to mean working late. But restoring the Senate is the right thing to do.”
Less than four months into the new Congress McConnell and Senate Republicans have more than lived up to their promise. The Associated Press reports on the outcome:
Suddenly, bipartisanship has broken out on Capitol Hill.
On Iran, Medicare, education and trade, Republicans and Democrats have come together to make deals, and that’s something rarely seen lately.
“It’s great,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said after the Senate followed the House’s lead this past week in overwhelmingly passing a bill overhauling the Medicare payment system for doctors. “There’s just a huge pent-up demand to actually get something done, on both sides.”
The same day as the Medicare vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved legislation empowering Congress to review and possibly reject an emerging Iran nuclear pact. Those breakthroughs were followed two days later by unanimous approval of a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law in the Senate’s education committee, and the announcement of a long-sought bipartisan deal allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate trade accords for Congress’ review.
Congress-watchers are applauding.
“Democracy had a pretty good week, and it’s been a long time,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Don’t want to believe a few anecdotes? Well, the Bipartisan Policy Center has a new report, called the “Healthy Congress Index” that tracks various metrics including, days in session, the number of amendment votes, the frequency of filibusters, etc., which is meant to provide an objective measurement of how well Congress is functioning.
The findings were across-the-board positive. Congress worked more far more days in the first quarter of 2015 than it did in the previous two Congresses. Regular order, which includes things like the committee process, floor debate and conference committee, led to far more bills being reported out of committee than in any other recent Congress. And finally, the Senate considered 202 amendments, the majority of which came from Democrats, which is far more than the previous two Congresses approved in an entire year.
Restoring the legislative process isn’t just about parliamentary behavior, it’s about working together to pass good laws, an interest that wasn’t always shared by former Senate leadership.
“These guys don’t work so hard to win elections to just come up here and be potted plants. They want to accomplish things, and the last several years they have been prevented by Leader Reid from even trying,” said Billy Piper, who works as a Republican lobbyist.
Fortunately, times are changing in Washington and it’s due largely to a changing of the guard.