WASHINGTON — Washington may be a sea of dysfunction, but the current Congress is offering a few reminders about how a bill becomes a law: compromise.
That’s been in short supply as lawmakers have tried to tackle a surge of Central American youths entering the U.S. from Mexico and find a long-term fix to funding the nation’s highways.
And more compromise will be needed next month to keep the government open past September, renew expired tax breaks, reauthorize the Export-Import Bank and extend the government’s terrorism insurance program. After that, the coming retirement of veteran dealmakers like Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Dave Camp, R-Mich., may only make compromise tougher.
However, when it came to improving veterans’ health care, overhauling job training programs, authorizing water projects and “unlocking” cellphones for use in other networks, Congress managed to get the job done.
The recent wave of lawmaking fell into two broad categories: bills Congress had to do to avoid embarrassment and less controversial measures lawmakers decided they wanted.
The must-do bills included $16 billion to improve veterans’ access to health care and a short-term $11 billion measure to prevent federal funding for highway projects and transit systems from drying up this month. Voting against either effort could have cost lawmakers in November’s elections.
The veterans bill came together when Democrats agreed to lower the price tag and Republicans accepted adding the additional cost to the national debt. On the highway bill, Senate Democrats bowed to House Republicans on financing it through anticipated revenues the government might or might not reap a decade from now.
Those weren’t the only deals in Congress over the last couple of months.
Legislation on job training programs advanced after House Republicans dropped their most ideological demands and worked closely with Democratic veterans like Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. Both came to Congress in the mid-1970s and are retiring at year’s end.
A water resources measure, sealed in May and signed by President Barack Obama in June, was the product of the traditionally bipartisan Senate Environment and Public Works and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees. The bill gave individual lawmakers political wins for projects such as dredging the Port of Savannah in Georgia, even if it wasn’t on the political radar nationally.
Still, several important bills face trouble as some committee chairmen pursue ideology over pragmatism.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who heads the House Financial Services Committee, won a tight 30-27 vote in his committee for a bill that would change home financing by eliminating mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It is unlikely to advance further this year.
Hensarling, a favorite of the right and former head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, has appeared uninterested in cutting deals with Democrats. That puts his panel at odds with the counterpart Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and its tradition of handling bills in bipartisan fashion.
On some issues, Hesnarling probably won’t get his way.
His leadership was undermined this year when coastal state lawmakers succeeded in weakening recent changes to the government’s much-criticized flood insurance program. He seems likely to lose to the Senate this fall when Congress renews the government program that backstops insurance companies in the event of a major terrorist attack. And he faces an uphill battle against Democrats and establishment Republicans to kill the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance exports by U.S. companies such as Boeing and General Electric.
“We do have more ideological people taking these ranking member and chair positions,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, former House Agriculture Committee chairman and now its top Democrat.
With the departure of Miller, Harkin, Waxman and Camp, and Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and John Dingell, D-Mich., Congress is losing some of its most accomplished deal-cutters.
As a result of rapid turnover, the concentration of lawmaking power has moved to leadership offices instead of committees. The increasing polarization on Capitol Hill also contributes to fewer lawmakers knowing how the game is played.
“It involves a lot of patience, perseverance. Things always don’t happen right away,” Waxman said. “The key is that you need compromise. And unfortunately, there are a lot of new Republicans — tea party, right-wing Republicans — who think that compromise is a dirty word and talking to the Democrats is like complicity with the enemy.”
Waxman’s fingerprints are all over the Affordable Care Act, major Medicaid expansions, food labeling, the Clean Air Act and the advent of generic drugs.
“Except for the Affordable Care Act, every bill that I authored that became law had some Republican support,” Waxman said. “I always worked with them to try to find a way to make it bipartisan.”