McConnell and the new House speaker, Paul Ryan, have taken credit for opening up the process in their chambers. McConnell has touted the fact that the Senate has taken up many more roll-call votes on amendments, providing a contrast to the times when conservative Democrats chafed under the grip of former Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“We weren’t able to do those other bills that we have done this year in the past because Senator Reid didn’t allow the Senate to function,” said GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. “You can’t do much if a bill is not allowed to be on the floor. You can’t do much if there are no amendments. You can’t do much if committees aren’t allowed to function. And that was the way the Senate was being run.”
But Democrats charge that Senate Republicans have strangled the process of confirming nominees, which Senate Democrats changed when they were in power as they decried Republican obstructionism. For the bills Congress has passed this year, Democrats contend that much of it has to do with their relative willingness to cooperate.
“Nearly every major bipartisan bill we have passed this year could have become law in years past if Republicans had not blocked them, obstructed them, filibustered them,” said Reid, now minority leader, earlier this month. “I say to my Republican friends, you get no credit for passing legislation now that Republicans blocked then. It doesn’t work that way.”
Adds Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, “Harry made a lot of mistakes—and he’d be the first to tell you that, I’m sure—but at least if we see something and we see a pathway forward, the Democrats are willing to move it.”
Conservatives also grew frustrated that the GOP-led Congress didn’t strip funding from Planned Parenthood after a series of videos from an antiabortion group purported that the organization was illegally selling fetal tissue. Others failed in their effort to bottle up the refugee-vetting process after the Paris terrorist attacks. And some grew exasperated that Republican efforts to boost defense spending required a surge in nondefense spending too. On Thursday, Republican Sen. Mike Lee called the tax and spending bills an “insult to the American people.
“Here we are again: another year of legislative dysfunction capped by an undemocratic, un-republican process that uses the threat of another manufactured crisis to impose on an unwilling country the same broken government policies that have repeatedly failed the people they are supposed to serve,” Lee said.
But, of late, the criticism from conservatives has usually been soft or isolated. This week, the House and Senate passed both the tax and spending bills with significant levels of Republican support.
Ironically, Congress’s productive 2015 helps ensure a less productive 2016. The decks have now been cleared of several thorny topics that might have jumbled next year’s calendar. Several other important, complex issues worthy of congressional attention—like immigration and tax reform, and passing new authorization to fight the Islamic State—appear doomed to fade in the bright glare of a presidential-election year. Many on Capitol Hill are therefore setting their sights even farther ahead—to 2017.
This article has been updated.