Most Americans prejudged the new Congress a failure before it even began. According to a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-December, only 37 percent think the 114th Congress will get more done than its predecessor while 62 percent think it will get less done or be no different. But they could be wrong.
Such negative assessments are understandable given divided party control of government and early pronouncements by the president and congressional leaders drawing lines in the sand over their differences. Oh, there will still be occasional rhetorical nods to the need to work together. But the three Cs of conciliation, cooperation and compromise have yielded for now to cold calculation, calcification and confrontation. Veto pens are being brandished quicker than bills inviting them can be introduced.
Given that, there is good reason to be skeptical about the prospects for the 114th Congress. The modern partisan era is different from the more bipartisan days of the mid-twentieth century. Parties are acting more like parties, and that injects more complexity and delay into the policymaking process. But that is not necessarily bad.
The first act of parties in any new Congress is to articulate their positions early, clearly and often. It is difficult to move forward purposefully until you first determine and announce exactly where you stand and in what direction you are inclined to move. If you arrive on the playing field without any goals, it is unlikely you will score any points.
We are now witnessing both political parties and branches staking-out their territory. It began on day one with majority Republicans in both chambers clearly enunciating their immediate legislative aims. House Democrats weighed-in early as well with their leader’s introduction of the Speaker salted with a multi-point Democratic policy agenda.
That was followed by two minority procedural motions during the rules debate aimed at bringing-up specific legislation within the month. Meantime, the president was pressing his policy proposals around the country in warm-up acts for Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
In the first two weeks of the session, House Republicans brought 13 unreported bills to the floor before committees were even fully organized. Most bills were warmed-up leftovers from the previous Congress that went nowhere in the Senate. All were considered under a closed or highly restrictive amendment process.
House Democrats did the same thing when they recaptured Congress in 2007, rushing to the floor unreported bills they had championed in the previous Congress. They had campaigned on a “Six for ’06” legislative platform otherwise known as “A New Direction for America.” It was a page right out of the House Republicans’ 1994 playbook when they campaigned on “A Contract with America” — a 10-point legislative platform they promised to bring to final floor votes within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.
The main difference in 2007 was that House Democrats promised to bring their bills to final votes within the first 100 hours. They were able to do that by providing for consideration of five of their measures under a closed amendment process established in their opening day rules package. Republicans had set the precedent for that scenario in 1995 by providing in their rules package for an opening day, closed amendment vote on the Congressional Accountability Act.
Speaker Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans in 1995 paved the way for partisan legislative blitzes at the outset of new Congresses following electoral power shifts. Such a strategy requires quick and closed consideration of priority bills — hardly a showcase for the regular order.
The quick pick of low-hanging fruit can build momentum and confidence for the arduous task ahead of actual governing. Neither party wants to come away from this Congress empty-handed and face angry voters at the polls. Consequently, the 114th Congress will enact some significant laws over the next two years, albeit incremental rather than transformational. And that may be the most we can and should expect.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.