Why is Congress working?

Many in the media are beginning to notice that Congress is, in fact, working again. It’s negotiating deals, passing significant compromises, voting on amendments, and taking on serious issues. As the 114th Congress was being sworn in I outlined a few reasons for optimism and potential areas of compromise. That said, the 114th Congress is even surpassing those expectations. But the bigger question is: why is it working? It should be expected that full Republican control of the Congress would help. Divided congressional control devastated legislative output. Historically, it is a very unusual institutional situation. When it does occur however, it tends to seriously depress output. Now that both chambers are under single party control, they are unsurprisingly working better together.

Unified control of Congress is also a major reason the executive and legislative branches of government are working better together. The Senate majority under Harry Reid effectively acted as a presidential veto for the last four years. It blocked House bills to repealing or defunding Obamacare, rolling back provisions in Dodd-Frank, obstructed several bills affecting energy regulation, prevented interferences in EPA regulations and alterations to the CFPB, and more. Many, in fact most, of these bills passed the House with large bipartisan majorities. However, if these bills were opposed by the president, they were conspicuously missing from the Senate calendar.

Now that the House and Senate are working together rather than simply checking one another, Congress once again has a negotiating position with the executive. Negotiations have shifted from the leaders’ offices on opposite ends of the Capitol to the offices at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s a major shift. Obama must now address Republican priorities and vice versa. As I pointed out in January, we should expect more vetoes – and the president has already doubled his veto total in three months – but we should also expect more compromise.

Is this a new era of bipartisanship? Don’t bet on it. While the doc-fix legislation, human-trafficking deal, Iranian negotiations, a deal on trade promotion authority and other bipartisan news dominated the headlines, the House inconspicuously passed a repeal of the estate tax, mortgage regulation changes, and financial services bills with very partisan majorities. And don’t forget that the human-trafficking filibuster is due to a breakdown in bipartisan staff relations and trust in the Senate.

So yes, we should applaud the 114th Congress and its leaders for its progress. However, this should not have been entirely unexpected. It’s just a departure from a previously dismal situation in the 112th and 113th Congresses. And unfortunately, do not expect it to continue for the full term of this Congress. There are more deals to be made but they will likely become increasingly rare as the congressional parties gear up for 2016.