When the 114th Congress convened a year ago this month, with Republicans back in control of the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in eight years, we found little reason to be optimistic that much governing would get done — not after several years of Republican government shutdowns, both threatened and actual, of courting default on the national debt and of generally manufacturing one fiscal crisis after another. But, as we wrote early last year, we hoped we would be proved wrong.
Today we write that we were proved wrong, mostly. Last year was a productive year for Congress. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that Congress generally doesn’t have productive years unless its members compromise, not only with each other but with the president too.
Despite polarized impressions otherwise, 2015 was a bipartisan congressional year:
Members of Congress passed a budget deal that puts off further silliness over the debt ceiling until March 2017. They replaced the much-hated No Child Left Behind Act, returning significant education accountability to the states. They passed, for the first time in a decade, a five-year, $305 billion transportation bill that will make federal help available to Texas and other states for some major highway projects.
They also ended a perennial nuisance in Medicare reimbursements to doctors, gave President Barack Obama and his successors greater authority to negotiate global trade agreements and passed a $680 billion tax package that makes permanent more than 20 tax breaks, including credits for low-income families and the sales tax deduction enjoyed by Texans and residents of other states without an income tax.
And they ended the year by passing a $1.15 trillion spending bill that will keep the government funded through September. This was one of those massive omnibus bills that contain many things to both like and loathe. Significantly for Texas, attached to it was legislation that ended the 40-year-old ban on exports of American crude oil.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who stands in the No. 2 spot in the U.S. Senate behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, spoke with us by phone last month to talk up Congress’ bipartisan accomplishments. And we note here an accomplishment of Cornyn’s own: the passage of his Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which targets sex trafficking in the United States and creates a fund to help trafficking victims.
Consider the decision to repeal the ban on U.S. crude oil exports as an example of congressional bipartisanship. Congress passed the export ban in 1975 during an era of embargoes by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, rising gasoline prices and anxiety about the nation’s oil supply. Over the past decade, the shale fracking boom has dramatically altered America’s position as a world oil producer, and opening global markets to American oil was a top Republican priority.
To succeed, however, Republicans had to offer concessions to Democrats concerned about climate change, including solar and wind energy tax credits. As Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis noted of the export ban’s repeal, “There are a lot of Republicans upset by what is not in the bill; there are a lot of Democrats who are upset because of what is in the bill.”
Cornyn, McConnell and new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan not only had to reach out to Democrats to prove they could govern, but they also had to defy the hard-line conservatives of their own party, including Cornyn’s fellow Texan in the Senate, Ted Cruz. To pass the $1.15 trillion spending bill, for example, Republican negotiators abandoned many provisions favored by tea party and social conservatives, including attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act and block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.
These compromises have played into the Republican base’s sense of betrayal by the party’s establishment just as actual voting to choose the next Republican presidential candidate is set to begin Feb. 1. Because the new year is an election year, few congressional observers expect 2016 to match the productivity of 2015.
In talking about the important, bipartisan accomplishments of 2015, Cornyn qualified his remarks by saying he was “not claiming the Age of Aquarius is dawning” in Congress. Republicans and Democrats remain deeply divided on issues like guns, immigration and tax reform, and Republicans have their own intraparty divisions to contend with too.
Nor are we saying we agree with every piece of legislation that was passed in 2015. But the way Congress worked on many issues over the past year — through give and take, by searching for and finding common ground and compromising — is how government is supposed to work.