Could Washington actually be working? The past week has witnessed several developments — on the Iran nuclear agreement, Medicare reimbursement rates, and fast-track trade authority — that offer grounds, if not for irrational exuberance, then for tempered optimism.
Emphasis on tempered. Legislative gridlock has not magically dissolved. For proof, two words suffice: Loretta Lynch, whose stalled nomination for attorney general is now inexplicably entangled in abortion politics.
Rather, the lesson of the recent achievements is that when the proper forces come into alignment, there are navigable paths through the gridlock. What are those forces?
The Iran measure, culminating in a unanimous vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a framework for reviewing the nuclear deal, reflected the confluence of two forces: the bipartisan congressional interest in asserting its authority against the executive branch, combined with the impact of individual lawmakers committed to negotiating over grandstanding.
Here, enormous credit goes to committee chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, who simultaneously fended off Republican colleagues who wanted the Iran deal to be handled like a treaty, requiring a two-thirds majority to approve it, and painstakingly worked through concerns from Democrats that his original proposal infringed too far on presidential authority.
Hence, equal credit to Democrats who worked the issue through with Corker — not only ranking member Ben Cardin of Maryland, but also Virginia’s Tim Kaine, who has been an important voice on the congressional role in foreign policy.
But to praise Kaine is also to interrupt any temptation for congressional self-congratulation on its exercise of constitutional authority. If it was so essential to assert itself on the Iran deal, where exactly is Congress in taking up the president’s invitation to write a new, even more constitutionally compelled, authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State?
If the Iran agreement illustrated the dual roles of institutional interests and personal skill, the Medicare deal reflected the lubricating function of money. To be more precise, of deficit spending. The hardest thing for lawmakers to do is to reach a deal — and, even harder, to stick to one — that imposes pain. The easiest route to agreement is by opening the national checkbook and saddling future generations with the tab.
The Medicare agreement, which passed the Senate 92-8 and won 392 votes in the House, solved several problems simultaneously. It ended the annual congressional can-kicking known as the “doc fix,” the result of overambitious cost-cutting targets for payments to physicians.
It moved to restructure Medicare payment systems to reward quality of care over quantity and encourage better coordination of care. And it extended for two years the important Children’s Health Insurance Program, for children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance.
But at a cost. Specifically, at a cost of $141 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office — and a whopping half-a-trillion dollars over the next 20 years, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. In most previous years, the cost of the patch has almost always been paid for with other cuts. This time, just one-third of the cost was offset. Bipartisanship is easy when it’s deficit-financed.
Finally, the argument over trade underscores the fragility and tentativeness of this bipartisanship. Trade has always been the most likely area of convergence between the interests of congressional Republicans and the Obama administration. Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, working with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, agreed on a mechanism to provide President Obama with fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But no sooner was the deal announced than the Senate minority leader in waiting, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, announced his opposition, highlighting the degree to which even mainstream Democrats feel under enormous pressure from labor to oppose the Pacific trade deal. And even though the measure’s prospects still seem solid in the Senate, the situation in the House is far more dicey, with the prospect that conservative Republicans wary of ceding authority to Obama could join forces with anti-trade Democrats to kill the fast-track measure.
The past week has shown: Even in an era of deeply divided government, Congress can manage more than engaging in meaningless temper tantrums, such as the umpty-umpth vote to repeal Obamacare. Other green shoots of bipartisanship — rewriting No Child Left Behind, crafting cyber-security legislation — are poking up through legislative permafrost. Whether lawmakers can summon the political will to bring them to harvest will shape the legacy of the 114th Congress.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.