Congress adjourned its first session of the 114th Congress at the end of last week upon passage of an omnibus appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2016 and a bill that made permanent or renewed a number of expiring tax breaks. The year-end sprint to keep the government running capped off a tumultuous year on Capitol Hill, plagued with partisan battles, conflict within the House Republican conference and a resulting leadership crisis that saw the abrupt and unexpected retirement of the Speaker. Despite these many challenges, it was a productive year for the legislative branch under Republican control of both chambers.
After the 2014 election, then-Speaker of the House John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell penned a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Now We Can Get Congress Going.” In their op-ed they laid out their vision and priorities for the 114th Congress. They pledged an end to years of congressional gridlock, in which House Republicans passed numerous bills, only to be stymied in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Following a very productive Congress under Democratic control during President Obama’s first two years in office, Democrats lost control of the House, while maintaining their control in the Senate. In addition, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid consistently employed parliamentary tactics to prevent Republicans from offering or debating amendments to legislation. His goal was presumably to prevent the members of the Democratic conference from having to cast tough political votes on amendments. His gambit ultimately failed, when Republicans re-took control of the Senate in last year’s election. As a result of Senator Reid’s approach, actual legislative debate ground to a halt in the Senate, and the institution itself appeared to have been harmed. Republicans were determined to restore the Senate’s legislative traditions, and in their op-ed the incoming Republican leaders stated “January will bring the opportunity to begin anew.”
Congress has undeniably returned to its core duty of legislating. More than 100 bills were enacted into law during the first session of the Congress. By comparison, at this point in the 113th Congress, only 57 bills had been approved by Congress and signed by President Obama.
The biggest legislative victory of the year was perhaps the final act of Congress before departing Washington: passage of the omnibus appropriations and tax legislation with overwhelming support in both chambers. The $1.1 trillion appropriations measure for FY 2016 funds the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, September 30, 2016, by adhering to the new spending limits negotiated earlier in the year and reflected in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, enacted on November 2. A number of other important provisions that were debated and negotiated during the course of the year were rolled into the omnibus measure. These include an extension of health insurance for 9/11 responders; provisions intended to tighten the visa waiver program; the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), a significant bill intended to encourage greater public and private data-sharing on cyber-intrusions and threats in order to promote enhanced cybersecurity; a provision that abolished the ban that had been in place for 40 years on crude oil exports from the United States; and a postponement of two provisions of the Affordable Care Act — the so-called “Cadillac” tax (a tax on expensive employer-sponsored health-care plans) and the medical-device tax.
Concurrent with the omnibus bill, House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee leaders were able to negotiate a $622 billion tax package to revive tax breaks that expired at the end of 2014. The legislation permanently renews a number of tax credit provisions, such as the research and development tax credit, the earned income tax credit, and the child tax credit, and temporarily extends other expiring tax credits, including benefits for renewable energy sources. Though not fully paid for, the tax extenders package will provide some certainty to businesses and individuals seeking to engage in future tax planning through the end of 2016.
The road to the omnibus appropriations package started with another legislative victory this year: the two-year Bipartisan Budget Act negotiated in the final days of Rep. John Boehner’s speakership. Republicans had been successful in passing a budget resolution through both chambers earlier this year (a legislative feat itself, because Congress had failed to adopt a budget resolution for the nine previous fiscal years.) The budget resolution established a process that set the budget rules and the spending limits for the Appropriations Committees to follow in funding federal agencies for FY 16. Congressional Democrats and the Administration opposed the funding levels, arguing they provided too much money to national security accounts without similarly boosting spending for Democrats’ domestic priorities. After months of wrangling over the spending limits, a Democratic filibuster of appropriations bills in the Senate, and passage of a continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown, a compromise budget agreement was reached in October that set new limits for FY 2016 and FY2017. These new limits satisfied Democrats and enough Republicans to pass, and its adoption allowed the appropriations process to proceed and conclude successfully.
This fall also brought the conclusion of negotiations to reauthorize two significant laws: an elementary and secondary education reform bill and a multiyear highway and infrastructure authorization bill. Success in renewing the federal laws in both areas had long evaded Congress, but this year was different. The bipartisan education bill reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which had not been renewed since the expiration in 2007 of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The new law, largely developed by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), limits the federal role in school policy and restores authority over education decisions to states and localities. The wait for a new federal highway authorization was even longer. After ten years and more than 30 short-term extensions, House and Senate negotiators were able to reach an agreement on a five-year, $305 billion transportation package in November. For years, disagreement over how to pay for transportation projects was the primary impediment to a long-term highway bill. Transportation funding has been reliant upon revenues from the gas tax as the main source of financing for projects, but in recent years, gas tax revenues have not kept up with annual spending, due largely to the impact of federally mandated fuel-efficiency standards. The new authorization, signed into law by President Obama on December 4, supplements the gas tax with dividends from a Federal Reserve account and approves transfers from other areas of the federal budget in order to provide more money for highway and infrastructure spending. The bill also included a reauthorization of the controversial Export-Import Bank charter, which had lapsed in July, through 2019.
The first major accomplishment of the year came in April, when a bipartisan effort to repeal and replace a Medicare-program formula for physicians’ reimbursement rates. Congress had passed 17 short-term bills to solve the problem imposed by a mandated reduction in reimbursement rates for physicians when Congress had enacted a formula, called the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Under the law enacted in April, SGR was repealed. In its place, Congress provided for a new reimbursement update each year for five years, eliminating the need for annual congressional action. The legislation included the first significant changes to entitlement programs in many years, drawing enough Republican support for the legislation.
Passage of a major trade package through both chambers this spring was hailed as a major win for congressional Republicans and President Obama. The legislation provides for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which grants expedited congressional consideration of trade agreements negotiated by the Administration and guarantees a straight up-or-down vote on those trade agreements without opportunity for amendment. Approval of this authority undoubtedly assisted the Administration in the final stages of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which would liberalize trade among 12 Asia-Pacific countries. The package of trade bills approved by Congress also included Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program to assist domestic workers whose employment is affected by trade, a trade preferences and enforcement measure, and a customs measure. Following congressional approval of TPA, a final TPP trade deal was announced in October after 7 years of negotiations, but significant concerns among various industries and leading Republicans, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) have cast a cloud over the prospects for Congress to vote on TPP in 2016, possibly depriving the President of a signal trade accomplishment in his last year in office.
Congress further exercised its authority over international dealings through passage of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, guaranteeing both chambers would have a role in the review of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Upon news that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China were close to an agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions against the country, Democrats and Republicans worked to create a bipartisan tool that would guarantee Congress would have the final say over any such agreement. Though Republicans worked to pass a resolution of disapproval on the final deal, Senate Democrats were successful in blocking consideration of the measure, allowing for the international accord to be implemented.
The USA Freedom Act, legislation to extend and reform provisions of the USA PATRIOT ACT, was another substantial bipartisan triumph for 2015. After intense debate over the government’s domestic surveillance powers, a bipartisan agreement was reached on how to reform the authorities granted post-9/11 and the USA Freedom Act was signed into law in June. The new law renews certain national security surveillance programs established by the PATRIOT Act, but terminates bulk metadata collection and enhances the transparency of various surveillance programs.
The productivity and significant legislative achievement of the session are remarkable because they were achieved in the face of serious internal conflict in the House’s majority conference. That roiling conflict attracted most of the headlines, while the legislative heavy-lifting received only sporadic attention from the media and the public. While the Republican party controlled both chambers and held its largest number of House seats since the Great Depression, the party had to grapple with an identity crisis. Fractures among different factions of the Republican conference that had been percolating for some time came to a head in October, when Speaker Boehner announced his retirement from his leadership position and from the House of Representatives. His move was due to irreconcilable differences with the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 conservative Members whose disagreement with the Speaker and establishment Republicans was largely over tactics and less over substance than many believe. The tactical disagreement, however, limited Speaker Boehner’s ability to manage his conference effectively and, as a result, he lost the ability to run the House without relying on Democratic support, which was unlikely in most instances. The success of “outsider” Republican presidential contenders like Donald Trump in the polls and the popularity of anti-establishment messaging among voters likely presage continuing stress for the Republicans in Congress in trying to bridge growing differences among various factions of their party. While Democrats face similar pulls, between their more “establishment” members and the more ardent and aggressive liberals like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Democratic presidential candidate and avowed socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), it is traditionally much easier to hold minority factions together than to knit together effective governing majorities. Passage of the bipartisan omnibus spending and tax bills must be counted as Speaker Ryan’s first major success in his new leadership role, but there will be many more battles in 2016 that will split his conference and renewed internal battles are likely, especially in the face of the elections next year.
During the Bush Administration, Republicans had held the presidency and control of both Houses of Congress from 2003-2006. During that time, they lost the support of many, resulting in Democratic take-overs of both Houses of Congress in the 2006 elections and the eventual election of President Obama in 2008. In gaining majority control over both Houses of Congress again in last year’s elections, Republicans faced the challenge of demonstrating that they could in fact govern and work with a President of the opposite party to make Congress work. That challenge was made more difficult by the dysfunction brought to the Senate by Senator Reid’s approach to managing the body. While there remains a year to go in the 114th Congress, Republican leaders in both chambers have gained much legislative success. Whether they can continue to achieve success in an election year and whether inside-the-Beltway legislative success translates to electoral success next November will be key political stories for the new year.