July 10, 2015

Who Said Bipartisanship Was a Myth?

Gabe Rozsa, Keith Smith, Stefan Bailey

Following a rocky start to the year, Republican leaders in Congress have scored major, bipartisan legislative achievements, including a permanent “doc-fix”, passage of trade promotion authority, and 

re-authorization of US intelligence programs. Republicans and Democrats are actively working on yet more bills that may see passage this year.  What explains this bipartisan productivity, and can it last the rest of the year and into 2016?

Stefan Bailey

The level of productivity in this Congress has a great deal to do with the nature of divided government, and an alignment of political interests between Republican congressional leadership and the Obama Administration. Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress for the first time in nearly 10 years, have a political imperative to prove to the American people that they are able to govern effectively – particularly in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. As such, GOP leaders have made a concerted effort to marginalize the more extreme elements of their conferences, and not shied away from legislative accomplishments that can be shared with congressional Democrats. The White House, for its part, is forced to partner with congressional Republicans in order to deliver lasting achievements in the final quarter of President Obama’s term in office. While we will never mistake this Congress for the most bipartisan of all time, opportunities exist for this recent stretch of productivity to continue through the end of this year and into 2016. Prospects look good this Congress for enactment of bipartisan legislation on cyber security, patent litigation reform, and TSCA modernization.

Gabe Rozsa

As a staffer who worked on two House committees that had great success developing bipartisan approaches, I have longed for a return to Congress looking for common ground on major policy issues rather than partisan bickering. Republican leadership in the House and Senate are finally allowing the committee process to work, and committee leaders in both parties are seizing that opportunity to find common ground. They are finding that they can work cooperatively and get things done without abandoning basic principles. Even in the highly divisive energy and environment areas, both chambers are trying to navigate around the quicksand of hot button issues to see what legislative progress can be achieved. For example, who would have predicted that the House could pass a re-authorization of a major environmental statute – the Toxic Substances Control Act – by a vote of 398-1 with the Senate poised to take up a bipartisan bill as well? There are signs of some pushback against cooperation from the wings of both parties especially as another presidential election year nears. It is perhaps safer to bet on a train wreck than on bridge building later this year as Congress is forced to deal divisive, must-pass bills, but I believe that we will continue to see bipartisan progress on important legislative initiatives.

Keith Smith

The Senate is legislating again, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deserves much of the credit for managing the affairs of the Senate with a steady hand. Most importantly, he has fulfilled his commitment to a different style of leadership than his Democratic predecessor, which in turn has engendered greater trust between the two parties.
Re-establishing a modicum of trust among senators facilitates the negotiation of tough legislative and procedural deals, such as passage of trade promotion authority (TPA) and trade adjustment assistance (TAA). TPA would not have passed had Democratic leaders not trusted Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner to deliver on their promise to later pass TAA. A better functioning Senate does not represent a new world order, however. This fall, the two parties are going to lock horns on weighty issues (tax extenders, debt limit, appropriations), but McConnell and Boehner are seasoned leaders that can be counted on to do the right thing in the end.