Teaming up, late in the game
Congress and the president are finally starting to work together, but will it continue in 2016?
By Susan Milligan, December 31, 2015
Capitol Hill Republicans and their voters didn't want him in office to begin with. They tried everything they could to thwart his agenda, both in the halls of Congress and in the courts. They fought mightily to deny him a second term and when that effort failed, they endeavored to undo what the president had managed to get done in spite of their opposition.
But with just a year left to go in the testy relationship between Congress and President Barack Obama, the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue appear to have reached a late-game rapprochement. While presidents tend to get little or nothing done in their final months in office, Obama and congressional leaders are positioned to continue a late-2015 trend of passing legislation not just to keep the government functioning, but to address some societal issues important to both parties. While the presidential race – generally the dominant force in a campaign year – remains in a chaotic state, the narrative of a dysfunctional Congress and go-it-alone executive branch is poised for a surprise ending: somewhat grudging cooperation and a jump in productivity.
"Maybe we're starting to work together a little bit, eh? Well, that's what the American public sent us here to do," says Rep. Bob Brady, Democrat of Pennsylvania. And on the executive branch side, "I think there's some genuine optimism on the part of the White House, especially after getting the omnibus [spending package] through," says Donna Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, noting that both parties had to make concessions to get major fiscal legislation passed before the Christmas recess. "Maybe that's a hopeful sign. With new leadership in the House, the White House is more optimistic," she adds, but "whether they can work together in an election year is still an open question."
After a long spell of near-constant feuding, Congress and the administration got a slew of legislation signed into law after give-and-take by both parties, including:
* An omnibus $1.1 trillion spending bill that not only keeps the government running, but lifts a ban on oil exports from the United States. Democrats were unhappy about the oil provision, but signed onto the legislation after Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi – who had been negotiating with GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan – told her caucus that they had prevailed against efforts to cut domestic spending.The president, meanwhile, managed to rack up some victories of his own without Congress, and sometimes in the face of congressional opposition. His administration crafted a nuclear deal with Iran (which is still being criticized) and moved ahead with normalizing relations with Cuba. Advocates for the diplomatic thaw are hopeful the president will visit the communist island in his last year.
* A tax extenders law that continues a series of tax policies – some the Republicans like and some the Democrats like. The $622 billion package includes business tax relief many Democrats said were no longer necessary to spur the economy. But 77 Democrats, including some of the chamber's most liberal members, voted for the package because it extends tax credits for the working poor and people caring for children.
* A highway bill that provides $305 billion over the next five years to build and repair the nation's crumbling infrastructure. For years, it appeared all but impossible that Congress could approve a multi-year highway bill, but the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers.
* Reauthorization of the Export-Import bank. Republican conservatives had opposed the bank, which is meant to boost American exports by providing lines of credit to buyers who otherwise would not be able to get it, arguing that the entity undermines the rules of the marketplace. But with a rarely successful and stunning tactic, moderate Republicans signed onto a so-called "discharge petition" forcing their GOP leadership to put the measure before the House for a full vote. The measure ended up passing overwhelmingly, with a majority of GOP votes.
* Education reform. Both parties had been complaining for years about the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002 and meant to hold schools, teachers and administrators accountable for the performance of students, who would be assessed with standardized tests. But partisan squabbling interfered with a common goal of tweaking the rules. After bipartisan negotiations, Congress remade the law, reducing some of the testing and giving more authority to state and local entities in evaluating schools. Obama, signing the new law in December, called it a "Christmas miracle."
Meanwhile, the administration negotiated a sweeping, international climate change agreement in Paris, a boost to a president who tried and failed, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress in 2010, to pass an American law aimed at reducing global warming. The courts gave the president relief as well, upholding a critical part of the Affordable Care Act, while congressional Republicans tried and failed scores of times to undo the health legislation.
Obama has largely been a "captive of his political circumstances," hindered by a hostile Congress and two damaging midterm elections that gave him few allies on the Hill, says Bruce Miroff, a political science professor at University at Albany and author of the forthcoming book "Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders and What They Face." But in what Obama calls his "fourth quarter," the president has been freed to do some of the things he campaigned on eight years ago, Miroff says. "In some sense, with all the talk about liberal disillusionment [with Obama], he's finally become the liberal president people thought he was and were so excited about in 2008," Miroff says.
Democrats and Republicans alike give credit to the new speaker, Wisconsonite Ryan, who had to be dragged into the job but who has given rank-and-file members hope that the chamber will return to "regular order," doing appropriations bills separately (as they are supposed to be done), passing budgets on time and giving members more leeway in offering amendments.
"I think there was added momentum when Speaker [John] Boehner announced his resignation – that created some wind at our backs," says Rep. Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia. Boehner was able to get some critical fiscal bills completed in his waning days in the job, setting a new routine for lawmakers used to back-to-back, stopgap spending bills, government shutdowns and floor debates that were all fight and no legislative progress. "I think that helped unlock some doors and windows" for Ryan, Connolly adds.
The success of the discharge petition on the Ex-Im Bank revealed the Freedom Caucus – a group of tea party-sympathetic lawmakers – for what they are, Connolly adds: influential, but not a majority view. "It doesn't mean they are without influence. It doesn't mean they can't be respected. But they are not this juggernaut they led people to believe," Connolly adds. "That was a critical moment. For the first time, Republicans broke with their own caucus and were willing to stare procedure and protocol in the face and say, 'I'm not going to be stopped by that.' It really liberated people," Connolly says.
In 2016, Obama is likely to push for a series of priorities he's been unable to accomplish thus far, including the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison (a 2008 campaign pledge) and gun safety rules (which he may do by executive order, Miroff notes). And while Congress may push back on some of those items, lawmakers are optimistic they can work with the president and with each other on other priorities. Sentencing and criminal justice reform has drawn support from both liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, and a pact is indeed possible, says Rep. Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. A new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution is also something Congress will work on with the president, Cole says, as Washington grapples with how to battle the Islamic State group.
Ryan wants to do reform of entitlements, programs whose spending is determined by the number of people eligible to receive them (such as food stamps and Social Security), and while such sweeping and controversial legislation is tough to do in an election year, merely putting the idea on the table constitutes progress, says Rep. Dave Brat, Republican of Virginia. "The announcement [of a legislative package] alone would have a huge, immediate stimulus, if we maintain regular order and stay true to our promises," Brat says.
And the president enters his final year in office as an historic political survivor, someone who became the first African-American president, won re-election and managed to rack up a laundry list of policy successes despite operating in one of the most partisan environments in modern history. But the vestiges of his struggles remain. The Republican front-runner seeking to succeed Obama in office, after all, was among the first to question the president's American citizenship.