Don't look now, but Tuesday, April 14, 2015, was a good day for American democracy.
First, the U.S. Senate, by an extraordinary 92-8 tally, adopted legislation ending 18 years of a flawed Medicare reimbursement system -- the so-called "doc fix" -- and extended funding for a once-controversial children's health program. The real breakthrough here happened in the House, where Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi sat down, shut the doors and developed a serious solution to one of Congress' most embarrassing "can-kicking" traditions. Before final passage in the Senate, the legislation had garnered 392 votes in the House.
Earlier that very same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stepped up to pass, on an equally stunning 19-0 vote, a skillfully constructed bipartisan compromise ensuring Congress a vote on any nuclear agreement with Iran. Recognizing that less than a month ago, nearly half the Senate seemed to have given up on the process -- taking the aggressive and highly partisan step of writing directly to Iranian leadership -- the establishment of a unified voice in the committee is a real sign of tremendous progress.
Together, these buds of bipartisanship offer signs that the legislative process is coming back to life after years of dark and depressing political gridlock.
Three factors supported this burst of inter-party cooperation. The first: a dose of healthy institutional ego. While both houses of Congress are replete with considerable individual egos, pride in the institution as a whole has been weakened in recent years by partisanship, diminished accomplishment and low regard in the eyes of the public. Members of both houses of Congress on both sides of the aisle have been frustrated and tired of being part of an unproductive body that in recent years has produced little but confrontational rhetoric.
Two depressingly stubborn problems could have been poster children for that frustration: a system for paying doctors under Medicare that had required a ridiculous pattern of annual "patches," and the continuous financial uncertainty facing states depending on the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It's no wonder that celebration broke out on Capitol Hill over the surprise breakthrough that demonstrated that Congress could actually leverage bipartisanship to solve such problems.
As for the Iran agreement, a shared investment in the institutional prerogative of the Senate -- based on a sense of a rich history and tradition, not to mention the Constitutional system -- loomed large among both Democrats and Republicans, despite policy differences on the issues involved. The resulting unity in reasserting a long-waning Senate authority vis-à-vis the executive branch is both appropriate and encouraging.
A second factor that helped produce these successes: a combination of dogged determination and good old-fashioned closed-door negotiation. Bob Corker, the Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, would not give up on his goal of gaining sufficient opposition votes to achieve a veto-proof compromise on Iran; indeed, the president has already agreed to sign the bill as passed by the committee. Good for Corker that his adroit effort -- and his willingness to spend late nights working out details with the committee's ranking minority member, Ben Cardin -- removed some of the bitter aftertaste of the ill-considered open letter to the ayatollahs signed by 47 of his Republican colleagues.
Meanwhile, the "doc fix"/CHIP bill resulted from Republican Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi digging in together and facing down stubborn conservative opposition to extending the CHIP program -- once considered a Trojan horse for nationalized health care -- and the lobbyists who perennially protected the complex reimbursement formula. They managed to reach a deal that immediately earned accolades from both leading Senate Democrats and the president, virtually assuring passage in the upper chamber. In addition to this unusual show of bipartisan force, the display of bicameral competence and courage is encouraging and worthy of note.
The third factor? The more constructive atmosphere encouraged by the Republican leadership in both Houses as they have made strides to reestablish the "regular order." More votes are being allowed on amendments, committee leaders are being allowed to play their critical role as initiators, and budget resolutions are being passed on time.
Things are far from perfect. There is still harsh energy and painful inefficiency out there. For example, a seemingly slam-dunk bill to combat human trafficking is mired in abortion politics, while the nomination of President Obama's highly qualified nominee for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, is being held up until the trafficking bill has been resolved.
But even one aspect of that standoff is refreshing: that after years of wall-to-wall stalemate, the legislative branch is finally recovering its capacity to simultaneously conduct intense battles and achieve productive collaboration.
That's the way government is supposed to work. And the fact that it is indeed functioning -- to resolve vital issues ranging from national security to fiscal reform to the health and well-being of children -- could bode well for a few more much needed very good days.
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