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2015 was the year Congress started working again

Was it the beard?
Was it the beard?
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hating Congress is an American national pastime, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. But look back on the just-finished year in legislating, and one thing becomes clear — a lot of legislating happened in 2015. It was a year, in other words, when Congress actually started working again and passing bills. Not just bills to keep the government's lights on or bills to rename post offices (though we had those, of course) but major substantive bills that addressed big questions of national policy.

Among some of the things Congress accomplished: The main federal statute governing K-12 education got an overhaul. So did the federal disability insurance system. A long-running dispute about federal highway funding got resolved, as did a long-running dispute about Medicare payments. Last but by no means least, December saw a whole bunch of tax changes featuring good news for low-wage workers and a broad set of business interests. Congress even passed a law to ban microbeads in bath products to help protect the nation's fisheries.

These aren't all good bills, and almost none of them are what anyone would consider a great bill, but in a way that's the point. Legislation passed in 2015 because congressional leaders went back to doing what congressional leaders are supposed to do in times of divided government: compromise to pass bills that don't thrill anyone but do make both sides happier than they would be in the absence of a bill.

Politics is zero-sum, but policy isn't

Each bill that passes Congress under any circumstances is a beautiful unique snowflake with its own story to tell. But any batch of legislation that passes does so due to some larger structural factors in American politics. Many bills passed Congress in 2009-'10 because Democrats won big in the 2008 election and because the Obama White House was good at coordinating with Democratic congressional leaders on the question of what issues Democrats wanted to take up (this isn't always the case, as the Jimmy Carter and early Bill Clinton years show). Many bills passed during the Reagan Revolution of 1981-'82 because House Speaker Tip O'Neill somewhat anomalously agreed to bring to the floor a whole bunch of bills that were backed by most House Republicans and a conservative minority of House Democrats.

The story of the 2015 legislating boom is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan decided to care less about presidential politics.

Much of that, in turn, is about Obama obtaining definitive lame duck status. All year, Republicans have been running against Hillary Clinton rather than Obama, so making Obama look bad has stopped being a legislative priority. Some of it reflects the fact that none of the leading GOP contenders are particularly well-liked by the party's congressional leaders, so there's less interest in helping them out than might otherwise be the case.

But the underlying insight is that while competition for political office is zero-sum, actual public policy isn't. In the tax deal, for example, Republicans won some business tax victories that were very important to them, and Democrats won some tax cuts for the working poor that were very important to them. In exchange, both sides had to let the other side push up the budget deficit, but it turned out neither side cared all that much about the deficit. So both sides win.

The education bill is an even clearer example. Congress's repeated failure to do a No Child Left Behind rewrite had left K-12 policymaking in a strange state where waivers issued by the Education Department at the discretion of the secretary had become the primary federal policy tool. Almost nobody in Congress liked this state of affairs, so by actually sitting down to hash out a bill they were able to come up with legislation that almost everybody voted for.

Legislating is back, but good government isn't

One lesson from this fit of legislating is that it hasn't exactly proceeded in the manner of a good government civics class. A lot of the deals have been brokered behind closed doors under conditions of incredible secrecy. The White House hasn't gotten things done by putting President Obama out there to demonstrate "leadership" and bring people together. Just the opposite.

Deals have happened because Republicans and Democrats alike have worked together quietly, while keeping public attention focused on high-profile, deeply polarized disagreements over things like gun regulation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

By making sure nobody on the outside knows what deals are being discussed, outside groups have less opportunity and incentive to act as spoilers or draw red lines. Even a huge share of the members of Congress who are ultimately asked to vote for the bills are in the dark about the negotiation as it is happening. Not coincidentally, many of the deals are deeply transactional — represented a least common denominator nexus of interest group demands rather than a high-minded, principles-based effort at reform.

In short: It's all a bit ugly, and it's not likely to turn Congress into a less-disliked institution. But it does work, and it's a superior model of policymaking to the government-by-crisis dynamic that prevailed for several years before it.