Can Congress maintain its 2015 momentum in 2016?

Can Congress maintain its 2015 momentum in 2016?
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This week, as Washington undergoes its annual post-holiday “re-awakening,” something feels different than in recent years past. 

The end-of-year congressional blitz to “get things done” tends to foster a familiar strain of frustration with Capitol Hill. November and December are typically a period marked by criticism about the legislature’s overall lack of productivity and painful inefficiency. But a funny thing happened in 2015, and it has been largely missed by the media and the public: Last year, Congress actually got back to work.

The public can be forgiven for missing the progress. There is high-decibel shouting from the campaign trail, stories of internecine Republican civil wars and endless vapid coverage of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFlynn to campaign for Montana GOP Senate candidate Trump considering pardon for boxing legend after call from Sylvester Stallone Decline in EPA enforcement won't keep climate bill from coming MORE’s tweets and who’s up, who’s down in the polls. If one can get through the noise, however, the last 12 months have been among lawmakers’ most productive and consequential in recent memory. From trade to taxes to healthcare, Washington actually tackled more big issues in 2015 than any other year in a very long time. 

In 2015, Congress passed the longest surface transportation spending bill since 1998. In the area of healthcare, after 17 short-term punts on Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors (what’s been called the “doc fix”), lawmakers finally ended this most predictable annual crisis and promulgated a permanent solution. For the first time since 2002, Congress extended trade promotion authority. It also provided relief to the most destructive automatic “sequestration” spending cuts that went into effect in 2013.

The list keeps going. Congress passed, and the president signed, several landmark pieces of legislation in education, cybersecurity and space exploration. No Child Left Behind was replaced. Liability protection for improved cyber threat information-sharing highlighted cyber security reforms four years in the making. And the commercial space sector now has more competition and incentives for growth. The anachronistic ban on oil exports that dated back to the 1970s Arab oil embargo is history, and the research and development and earned income tax credits have finally been made permanent after decades of temporary and often retroactive extensions.

The legislative achievements of 2015 were not a result of one party exercising power unilaterally. The USA Freedom Act, which reformed national security surveillance, passed the House with 338 votes. Eighty-five senators supported the Every Student Succeeds Act. Large bipartisan majorities preserved the Export-Import Bank and are poised to pass the first reauthorization of the Toxic Substances Control Act since 1976.

As people who make their living working with lawmakers, we understand that the legislative process is messy and rarely perfect. We also understand that it can be fragile, which is why understanding what enabled progress in 2015 is important. We think progress resulted from three significant changes.

First, Congress settled into a new form of “regular order.” Committees did their jobs, holding hearings and crafting workable solutions. In the Senate, amendment opportunities granted by the majority skyrocketed and threats by the minority to filibuster plummeted. Important progress demands broad participation, and Congress worked better because both parties made that possible.

Second, lawmakers abandoned deficit absolutism. After $852 billion in stimulus spending in 2009, Congress became understandably unwilling to spend new money unless concurrent cuts or tax increases could be found. In 2015, by contrast, the “doc fix” spent $141 billion over 10 years more than was offset by cuts, while the year-end tax package cost $650 billion. Ultimately, policymakers must address the perennial mismatch between spending and revenue, but the only true solution to this overarching challenge is faster economic growth and the policies that create it.

A final change enabling such a productive year is political will. Most officials elected over the past two election cycles hate partisan gridlock as much as their constituents. These lawmakers quit their prior jobs and leave their families each week because they want to get meaningful things done. Similarly, the president can see the end of his tenure on the horizon and is looking to add accomplishments to his legacy. Republicans and Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have skin in the game to reach workable resolutions. 

Educators, schoolchildren, doctors, small businesses, transportation companies and military families all benefited in 2015 from concrete reforms solving their real-world challenges. Solutions led to these outcomes, not showdowns or shutdowns. 

To be sure, huge challenges remain. The country needs pro-growth tax reform, regulatory right-sizing, changes that make entitlement programs sustainable and overdue investment in critical areas. Here’s hoping the new pragmatism prevails again this year.

Mehlman, a Republican, and Castagnetti, a Democrat, are the bipartisan founders of the government affairs firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas after decades of service as congressional, executive branch and political senior staffers.