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Signs of Life, but Don't Expect Bipartisan Bloom

Don't expect this to happen much this year. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

If there was ever a sound reason for a congressional leader from one party to plant a kiss on the cheek of a leader from the other side, it was in the Rose Garden last week.  

Solving a multibillion-dollar problem that bedeviled Congress for a dozen years (inadequate Medicare reimbursements to physicians) is the only genuinely important bipartisan achievement of the 114th Congress to date. When Speaker John A. Boehner smooched a beaming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a celebratory reception hosted by President Barack Obama, it was a visual cue about the extraordinary nature of the moment, for which the two frequent partisan antagonists shared principal credit .  

Nothing remotely as consequential — or even out of the ordinary by once-customary standards for measuring congressional behavior — has happened this year. That’s worth observing at a time when so many politicians, columnists and political scientists are talking glowingly about the Capitol’s rhythms starting to return to normal.  

Such declarations about signs of healthy legislative life this spring are mostly overwrought, somewhat premature and potentially counterproductive. For those with professional lives centered on the Hill, there is an understandable desire to see evidence Congress has found the bottom of its dysfunctional ditch and is beginning to climb out the other side. But there’s a downside to such eagerness. Overinflating the meaning of a handful of modest and historically routine accomplishments will tempt lawmakers to rest on laurels they have not yet earned.  

If that happens, members will hardly be ready when it’s time to stretch their collaborative muscles on the bigger legislative challenges of the year — at least one of which, the clash over spending caps and the use of appropriations bills to reverse Obama’s regulatory policies, will be unavoidable come the fall.  

In the longer term, setting too low a bar for declaring the Capitol functioning again permits lawmakers to keep avoiding those root causes of the current hyperpartisanship they have the power to fix. That's a political map unfriendly to centrists, oceans of campaign cash surging to the edges of the ideological spectrum, and a congressional culture that punishes members even tempted to play to the middle.  

The most dramatic overstatement so far has been about the meaning of last week’s actions in the Senate. Passage of a bill to help the victims of human trafficking , followed by the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general , was widely hailed as a sign senators are shedding their bad habit of preferring confrontation to productivity. But there’s a strong case to be made that gives them way too much credit.  

It took almost six weeks of wrangling to untangle a partisan parliamentary knot of their own making  — an extraordinary amount of time and effort to come up with a split-the-difference agreement about whether girls forced into sex slavery may cite the rape exception in order to use a victims’ fund to pay for abortions. The underlying bill then passed 99-0, making plain the core proposal was not something that ever required a grand bipartisan compromise.  

As for Lynch, the vote to put the first African-American woman in charge at the Justice Department was undeniably historic . But the fact it took a modern-record 167 days to get to a roll call on a nominee who was never labeled unqualified or unethical — and only after Republicans insisted on a staging a symbolic filibuster requiring two votes instead of one — can fairly be described as perpetuating the confirmation wars more than signaling any retreat from them.  

Yes, lawmakers were in session more days during the first three months of this year than in 2013 or 2011. But they worked longer hours in January, February and March six years ago. And, yes, the number of amendments considered by the Senate in the first quarter of this year was higher — but only against the comparable numbers for the start of the three previous Congresses.  

Yes, two consumer-friendly laws enacted this year can fairly be described as the result of bipartisan persistence being rewarded when it hadn’t in the past. But to get them done, the sponsors had to scale back their longstanding goals. (One bars the use of Social Security numbers on Medicare cards; the other aims to boost energy efficiency in buildings and water heaters.)  

Yes, Senate and House negotiators are ready to finalize agreement this week on the first budget resolution to get done since 2009. But that’s supposed to be the default setting when one party controls both chambers, and it was a divided Congress four of the past five years.  

Yes, the pieces are rapidly falling in place for a Republican Congress to grant a Democratic president power to complete the biggest trade agreement in two decades, with 11 other nations in the Pacific Rim. But every president since Gerald R. Ford has been similarly authorized to make trade pacts that Congress could not amend, only approve or reject. So this bipartisan legislative drive is to maintain the status quo, not change it.  

Yes, there’s lots of optimistic talk about really getting close to deals on improving the nation’s cybersecurity protections, revamping the main law governing federal aid to public schools, and creating new privacy protections as part of an overhaul of government surveillance rules. But the history of all three efforts, each of which started years ago, suggest the negotiations have plenty of time to run off the rails.  

And, yes, most Republicans and many Democrats are ready to vote for a bill mandating Congress review a final nuclear deal with Iran, and Obama says he’ll sign it. But he could still trump Congress by vetoing any resolution of disapproval, and in the interim he’ll have to wait just seven weeks after signing any agreement before lifting economic sanctions on Iran. In other words, bipartisan claims about reshuffling the foreign policy balance of power are an exaggeration.  

When he was first running for president, George W. Bush declared that a fundamental problem with public education was that disadvantaged students in underperforming schools were being educated to easier standards than the nation ultimately required. He called it “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and it’s easy to see a parallel to what lawmakers are confronting this spring.  

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