Opinion

Just When You Least Expect It — A Congress That (Sort of) Works

Lawmakers have shown they are getting things done. They mustn’t stop.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, here with Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer in February, acknowledged the cooperation of Democrats in the progress made on fiscal 2019 spending bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — If you had to use one word to describe the last year in Washington, “stormy” might come to mind, for a whole host reasons. Or “trial.” Or “collusion.” You could also throw in “Twitter,” “tax cuts,” “fake news” and “resist” as the Washington words of the year.

The very last word anyone would use to describe Washington is “functional,” especially if Congress is a part of the conversation. And yet, while the country’s focus has been trained on Paul Manafort’s corruption trial or Omarosa’s secret White House tapes or what the president thinks about all of it, lawmakers have been making slow and steady progress toward their most basic, but often most difficult, job every year — funding the United States government.

As of Labor Day, the Senate had passed nine of 12 spending bills, while the House had passed six. With both chambers back in town this week, the Senate is expected to take up three minibus appropriations conference reports before Oct. 1 and, along with the House, could get the lion’s share of the government properly funded through regular order for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Even with chaos on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, congressional appropriators have managed to find a way to get their bills crafted, processed and nearly agreed to, with input from both sides of the aisle. It’s enough to make you think all is not lost on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shared credit for the progress so far with a surprising group of people — Senate Democrats.

“Our Democratic colleagues in the Senate are to be commended for cooperating with us,” he said, describing a joint effort by both parties to avoid another stopgap continuing resolution that could both risk a government shutdown and leave funding levels as is. “I think, given how completely fouled up the government funding process has been for 20 years … this is about omnibus prevention, about actually demonstrating to the American people that we can do what we’re supposed to do on time.”

ICYMI: Senate GOP’s Tribute to John McCain

Take a bow, chairmen

By all accounts, credit for getting the bills this far goes to the two veteran legislators leading the Appropriations committees — Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, and Sen. Richard Shelby, who took over from Sen. Thad Cochran this year. When Frelinghuysen announced his retirement in January, he said his sole remaining goal was to pass the fiscal 2019 appropriations bills through regular order. Thirty years ago, that would have been the bare minimum an appropriator would do. These days, it’s practically a miracle —and the chairman has gotten closer than most.

One way he’s done it is, as McConnell intimated, has been working with Democrats. Like Shelby, the New Jersey moderate came up in the House at a time when regular order and bipartisanship were part of the fabric of the place. At his final markup as committee chairman, Frelinghuysen was praised by Republicans and Democrats alike for conducting the committee with the kind of civility that’s rare on the Hill these days.

“You have earned your retirement, but I want to express from the bottom of my heart how much we will miss you,” ranking member Nita M. Lowey told him. 

And when Sen. Shelby was just a few months into his tenure as chairman on the Senate side, he was on the floor thanking his ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy, for working with him to move all 12 appropriations bill through the committee between April and July.

“What has been truly remarkable is not the speed of the fiscal year 2019 appropriations process, but the bipartisanship that has given it new life,” the Alabama Republican said. “On this point, I want to pause and recognize the significant contributions of Vice Chairman Leahy to this effort.”

Shelby explained that he and Leahy had spoken early in the year and discussed ways to make the committee’s work functional. Both sides agreed to avoid poison pills in committee spending bills and that any new programs would go to the authorizing committees, instead of through the appropriations process.

“We came together at the outset of the process and determined that only by uniting would appropriations bills make it to the Senate floor,” Shelby said. 

Win one for the Maverick

The unsung bipartisanship in those committees has been in line with nearly everything the late Sen. John McCain called for last July after his cancer diagnosis, when he returned to a dysfunctional Senate to implore his colleagues to do better for the chamber and, in the process, for the country.

“Let’s trust each other,” the Arizona Republican said then. “Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”

If Congress wants to show that they have taken anything away from the tributes to Sen. McCain from around the country last week, they can follow the leads of Sens. Shelby and Leahy, of Reps. Frelinghuysen and Lowey, and of Sen. McCain himself, by finding a way to pass the appropriations bills through regular order this year, instead of finding another excuse not to.

The one person who could blow the whole thing up, of course, is President Donald Trump. Even if Congress passes all 12 spending bills by Oct. 1 — which most people agree they won’t be able to do — the president still has the power to stop the bills and shut the government down in the process. But that’s nothing new at this point, and nothing that Congress should allow to happen, especially with the words of John McCain still hanging on the air.

“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us,” McCain said in one of his last speeches from the floor. For the Senate and for the country, I hope the same.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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