Unexpectedly, Congress has begun to make bipartisan progress
© Greg Nash

At the end of March, pundits in Washington believed the legislative process was sputtering to a halt. As The Associated Press reported: “With passage of an enormous budget bill, the GOP-controlled Congress all but wrapped up its legislating for the year.”

But then something happened. A collection of determined legislators, all keenly aware that the country’s challenges weren’t about to take an eight-month break, decided to keep working toward bipartisan solutions. The new impulse didn’t come from the far right or the far left. It didn’t even come from the Senate or House leadership. The new energy came from deal makers in both parties who feel rightfully obliged to use their positions of power to address the nation’s pressing needs. And the first issue to bubble up for bipartisan consideration was one the Trump White House has pushed Capitol Hill to address: prison reform.

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The public is well-acquainted with the problem. Criminals too frequently emerge from prison incapable of establishing healthy, productive, law-abiding lives. So they end up committing new crimes and being sent back to prison. Voters across the spectrum are demanding that Washington do something to break the cycle. And while extremists on the left and right would happily hold prison reform bills hostage to other reforms, deal-making Republicans and Democrats realized this challenge was one on which they could do business. So they began to negotiate.

Those talks bore fruit. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the First Step Act, a bill that establishes new incentives for prisoners to enter the sorts of prison rehabilitation programs that reduce recidivism. The theory is simple and intuitive: If prisoners exhibit good behavior and set themselves up for success outside of prison, they should be given credits that allow them to be released earlier. As a result, the First Step Act aims to thin the burgeoning American prison population.

But if Congress’ focus on recidivism can be seen as the result of persistence on an issue that Washington has simply failed to address, the unexpected progress members made on immigration reform represents a more explicit repudiation of Capitol Hill’s inability to get things done. And a group of bipartisan legislators made progress on that front as well last week.

Despite deep and entrenched opposition from the House leadership, a bipartisan group is forging ahead. Led in large part by Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloZeal, this time from the center The Hill's 12:30 Report Few voice support after House GOP releases 293-page DACA bill MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, members have circulated a “discharge petition” that would require the full chamber to vote on a series of immigration bills, with the one getting the most combined support moving on to the Senate.

At the moment, the discharge petition, which has been signed by a vast majority of Curbelo’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus colleagues, is just a few supporters short of the 218 required to force floor consideration. Its opponents now acknowledge that it’s likely to succeed. So soon after the Memorial Day recess, the House is likely to have a vote on immigration reform, and possibly border security. In other words, Congress is finally making progress.

Two things are particularly notable about these two emerging breakthroughs. First, they’re been made on issues that have broad bipartisan support. Yes, opponents to both initiatives exist on the far left and far right. But in both cases, lots of Democrats and Republicans both agree that Washington needs to buckle down and make progress. And so, rather than depending on the lockstep support of those on either fringe, members are doing what they think is best for the country. More power to them.

Second, and maybe more important, these changes are being accomplished not as a result of some big change in election law. We’re not making progress on prison and immigration reform because we’ve changed the way campaign finance works, or because we’ve limited lobbying or upended the rules about who can and cannot vote. Rather, this particular progress was simply born from the fact that existing members of Congress are frustrated with their inability to get things done, and together they generated the gumption to challenge leaders unwilling to move the ball forward.

Our democracy is fragile, and we should always seek ways to improve it. But as we search for more wins for the American people, we need to focus on what works. Harnessing and improving processes on Capitol Hill—processes like the discharge petition—hold the key to encouraging productive bipartisanship. We now know that Washington can work if members are willing to do the right thing. Let’s hope they keep trying.

Tom Davis is a former Representative of Virginia’s 11th District and a co-founder of the bipartisan organization No Labels.