The dirty open secret about Capitol Hill is that there’s a very narrow window in which significant legislation can pass between the campaigns that reshape Congress every two years. It’s the new normal, formed by the rise of partisanship and big-money politics.
But after half a decade of divided government, in which congressional Democrats worked to stymie President George W. Bush and, conversely, congressional Republicans used every opportunity to block or roll back President Obama’s agenda, something changed in 2015: Congress passed significant bipartisan legislation that was signed into law by the president.
The list includes a major reform to the K-12 education system, a long-awaited fix to Medicare’s formula for paying doctors and a five-year agreement on how to fund the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
That isn’t to say that the enormous gulf between conservative congressional Republicans and Obama has disappeared — Republicans in 2015 were successful for the first time in passing a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature legislative achievement, through both chambers. But after years of gridlock that led to a near default on the nation’s debt and a two-week government shutdown in 2013, this year was a feast of legislative compromise and achievement
Here’s what was accomplished:
A complicated 1997 Congressional budget agreement created a formula for paying doctors who treat Medicare patients. Unfortunately for the doctors, that formula regularly cut their pay, leaving doctors unsure of their income each year. Congress repeatedly voted for more money to make up for the gap.
That “doc fix” ritual continued until 2015, when then-Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi worked out a change to the formula. Over five years, a new formula will pay doctors based on the quality of care they provide, not just the amount of care.
The $210 billion measure sailed through the Senate and House, and was largely deficit-financed.
Prior to this year, Congress hadn’t passed a long-term funding bill for the nation’s transit and infrastructure since 2009.
Negotiators in the House and Senate were finally able to hammer out an agreement this month that easily passed both chambers. One of the most important aspects of the bill is that it shores up the highway trust fund, which pays for the highway system using revenue from the federal gasoline tax. The fund has been running out of money since 2008, causing disruption to road repair and construction nationwide.
Like the doc fix, the highway measure relies on a creative financing solution that does not involve taxes. The $305 billion bill is paid for in part by transferring money from a Federal Reserve account and selling part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
(See our piece on why some critics say the highway bill could cause other problems in the future.)
Since 2010, battles over spending have been the main event in the long-running feud between Obama and House Republicans.
But in late December of this year, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders worked with Obama on a massive spending bill that funds the government until next October. Although House conservatives had helped remove Boehner from office over similar deals, there were no widespread hard feelings toward Ryan this time. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ryan and Obama all praised each other’s work after the bill sailed through Congress.
The spending bill was paired with a package of tax cuts known as tax-extenders, meant to entice some Republicans to vote for both measures. Those $650 billion in tax cuts were also deficit-funded (notice a theme?)
Security and visa waivers
This quiet reform moved through Congress as part of the massive appropriations bill mentioned above.
In the aftermath of the ISIS-linked terror attacks in Paris, Republicans and some Democrats in the House rushed to pass a bill making it harder for Syrian refugees to enter the country. It didn’t reach Obama’s desk.
A separate proposal that was already in the works was ultimately included in the spending agreement. That measure makes changes to the visa waiver program that allows citizens from 38 “friendly” countries easy access to the U.S. The reform requires residents of those countries who are originally from or have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria in the past five years to go through a stricter visa review process before entering America. Several of the Paris attackers were born in Belgium and France, two of the countries in the visa waiver program.
The European Union and Iran are not at all happy with the reform.
Congress also overhauled the No Child Left Behind federal education reform bill signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Every Student Succeeds Act transfers power from the federal government to the states, giving states more say on how to evaluate teachers and improve schools.
The education bill was yet another example of legislators from different parties — led by Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — working closely together on a product nearly every member of Congress supported.
What’s next in 2016?
For all of Congress’s success this year, legislative action in 2016 will likely grind to a halt. Major legislation typically falls by the wayside during presidential election years. And with Obama leaving office, he has even less leverage over Congress.
One possible area of compromise is criminal justice reform. A group of senators from across the political spectrum teamed up to write legislation earlier this year that reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, among other reforms. Obama has also expressed interest in working on that issue.
Also pending is congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a massive trade deal between the U.S. and 11 Asian countries that’s a priority for the White House. The deal could be finalized next year, although opponents from both sides of the aisle are already trying to block the agreement.