The ‘do-something Congress’
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The U.S. Congress is among the least popular institutions in the nation. Partisanship is rife, and one often hears talk of a "do nothing Congress."

Indeed, not all is well on Capitol Hill or in Washington, writ large.  Many observers actually list the dysfunctional situation in Washington as among the significant threats to U.S. prosperity and even U.S. national security.  


But as 2015 winds down, as Speaker BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) has departed (after yet one more very good deed), and as campaign 2016 has intensified, it is time to give credit where credit is due.  The current Congress has, in the end, been a "do something Congress"--and of course, the accomplishments required partnership with President Obama, so the White House deserves some of the credit, as well.

Many of this year's highlights center on the federal budget and the nation's economy.  Neither party is delighted with where we are, of course, and the tone of many presidential primary debates could lead one to believe that the nation is on the brink of disaster.  Yet the net effect of Congressional and presidential interaction on a number of matters has been to reduce the deficit, help sustain a respectable economic growth rate, and set the stage for future prosperity.  That is encouraging, for as we have noted over the past two years, the U.S. has extraordinary opportunities even as China and the rest of the world are slowing down. But capitalizing fully on these opportunities requires Congress and the White House to work together to turn down legislative “headwinds” that impede growth into “tailwinds” that will propel it further.  And that has actually been happening to a degree over the past six months.


* Congress approved Trade Promotion Authority for the president – which, in turn, enabled the successful final negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The TPP is not only an economic coup, but the most significant step to undergirding the administration's "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific without excessive dependence on the military instrument (though that also is very important).  And TPP could also be an important lever for pushing China (not an original TPP member) into better behavior on matters in the cyber arena without having to resort to high-level diplomatic confrontation or economic sanctions to achieve results – though we need to be ready to take those steps, if necessary.

*  We hope that, in short order, there will be a highway funding bill coming soon to a White House near us..  Its scale may not be fully adequate given the nation's infrastructure needs, but it will be a good start and much better than nothing.

*  It appears likely that Congress will attach funding of the Ex-Im Bank to the highway bill or some other good legislative vehicle.  And this important government organization will thus be able to continue its role as an exceptional tool for promoting American trade and investment abroad (and continue to be a revenue-producer for the federal coffers as well, since its loans are rarely defaulted upon and pay interest to the government).  Most other countries have similar organizations and funding the U.S. version is eminently sensible.

*  Another accomplishment is the new budget deal with the president – which restored some of the unwise cuts to defense spending that would have taken place under sequestration.  It did the same for important domestic investment accounts from health and science research to education, infrastructure development, and environmental protection that are important for long-term economic growth, manufacturing strength, and national power.

*  And then there has been support for the ongoing war effort in various places (as well as important elements of defense policy such as steps towards acquisition reform that are likely to be passed soon).  Through hearings and other tools, Congress has arguably also helped press Obama to take what we would consider to be wise steps in foreign policy, such as an extension of the Afghanistan mission

*  Finally, there has been overall budget discipline in recent years that, while often occurring through an ugly process and sometimes cutting unwisely, has nonetheless brought the US fiscal debt-to-GDP ratio down to manageable levels (at least for the short term).

Beyond these items, Congress arguably did reasonably well at debating the pros and cons of the Iran nuclear deal too, at least on the substantive merits.  It is regrettable that in the end the vote broke down along partisan lines, but the arguments we heard on both sides of the issue were serious and thoughtful.

Our main point is not to encourage complacency or sound Polyannish.  Much more needs to be done, next year and beyond, including on matters such as education reform (to prepare the nation's workforce for the challenges of a 21st century economy), on comprehensive immigration reform, on cyber security legislation (which could come this session, as well). Rather, our goal is to take fair stock of where the year is ending--and to challenge some of the cynicism that pervades our public discussion of Washington and Congress.  Compromise and pragmatism are not dirty words, and in fact, Washington this year saw a bit more of both than we might have expected and more than many have yet appreciated. 

May the remainder of this session see more of the same.

Petraeus, a four-star general, served as director of the CIA from 2011 to 2012; commander of the International Security Assistance Force and of U.S. Forces Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011; commander of U.S. Central Command from 2008 to 2010; and commanding general of the Multi-National Force – Iraq from 2007 to 2008. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy issues.