Congress's Surprisingly Productive Year

The House and Senate passed more significant pieces of legislation than at any time since early in President Obama’s first term.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Lo and behold, Congress actually got some big things done this year.

By just about any standard, the House and Senate passed more significant pieces of legislation in 2015 than at any point since President Obama’s first two years in office, when Democratic majorities gave him a raft of landmark policy achievements. The laws Congress enacted this year were not as expansive, but with Republicans controlling Capitol Hill for the first time since 2006, they were all bipartisan.

The list of major congressional actions includes:

Using the last four years as a point of comparison is admittedly setting a low bar for judging the first session of the 114th Congress. As anyone paying even occasional attention to Washington politics could tell you, not much made it out of the Capitol between 2011 and 2014. The Republican-controlled House bickered with a Senate run by Democrats, and lawmakers lurched from one crisis to the next. Most of the noteworthy legislation that did pass—a deficit-reduction bill in 2011, the fiscal-cliff deal in 2013—were significant merely because they forestalled a calamity of Congress’s own making, not because they established new law or proactively addressed a national problem.

And so although none of the legislation passed in 2015 matches, say, the Affordable Care Act or the 2009 economic stimulus package in scope, this year saw the House and Senate return to a semblance of normal governance. “They’ve really nailed down some festering issues that have been on the agenda for quite a while,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow who studies Congress at the Brookings Institution. “And they’ve done it in this sort of remarkably bipartisan way.”

What changed?

The first and most obvious difference is that Republicans took over the Senate majority. While this could have been the recipe for even more gridlock, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a deliberate decision to demonstrate in his first year that Republicans could run, in his words, a “responsible, right-of-center governing majority.” The imperative, as he described to reporters early on, was to lay the groundwork for the 2016 election and to show voters that they needn’t be frightened of giving Republicans both the Congress and the White House.

McConnell got off to a slow start, and GOP leaders stumbled in an early showdown with Democrats by withholding funds for the Department of Homeland Security in a standoff over immigration. But ultimately, McConnell delivered on his promise, and during year-end interviews and press conferences, he took a victory lap on leading a more open and productive Senate. “By any objective standard,” he said after the chamber closed up for the year, “the Senate is clearly back to work.”

Yet because the Republican majority is not filibuster-proof, McConnell needed Democratic cooperation. For the most part, he got it. In the closing weeks of the year, Democrats pointed out that the issues on which Congress made progress—particularly the infrastructure and education bills—came out of the large backlog that had built up when they were in the majority.

“All the things that my friends boast about, my Republican friends, we could have done years ago, but they obstructed them,” lamented Harry Reid, the former majority leader whom Republicans relegated to the minority. Senator Charles Schumer took the argument a step further: “The bills we’re passing reflect Democratic values,” he told reporters. “Even though we’re in the minority, we’re passing a program that we’ve been for all along.”

Victory, of course, has a thousand fathers—or at least a couple hundred when a bill passes Congress. And much of the backslapping in the Capitol reflected the kind of credit-taking you’d expect from members of an institution held in low-esteem by most of the American public. Democrats may have helped Republicans pass bills that aligned with their priorities, but they were frustrated that the GOP took no action to combat climate change, address gun violence, raise the minimum wage, or overhaul the nation’s immigration—all key parts of Obama’s agenda.

The final flurry of legislation came after a period of intense turmoil in the House, when Speaker John Boehner resigned rather than face a revolt by conservatives in the Republican conference. While most of the significant bills were in the works before Boehner left, lawmakers said his departure created more political space for Paul Ryan to steer them over the finish line. “Over a period of time, Speaker Boehner had lost some gravitas within the conference, and Paul hasn’t,” said Representative Reed Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican. If nothing else, Ryan made productive use of the honeymoon afforded him by the conservatives who would raise objections whenever Boehner brought legislation they didn’t like to the floor.

Binder said the combination of McConnell and Ryan in the two leadership posts “probably greased the skids.” There was, she said, “a little more willingness to clean out the barn, get it going, and put these behind them to focus on 2016.”

Will the bipartisan bonhomie continue in the new year? Expectations for major legislative action are always low in a presidential-election year. The ripest area for bipartisanship is criminal-justice reform, which has attracted the interest of lawmakers from across the political spectrum. Obama has listed it as a priority, and advocates believe they have a small window early in the year before the presidential and legislative primary campaigns make a major bill impossible. But despite passage of Trade Promotion Authority earlier this year, there is a dwindling likelihood that Congress will approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership before the election. Obama also is expected to press Congress to act on his plan to finally close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, to formally authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State, and to address gun violence. In a year-end news conference, he sounded realistic about the low chances that lawmakers will move on any of those priorities.

Yet as he considered a legislature that has so often frustrated him, the president added, “Every once in a while, they’ll surprise you.” They certainly did in 2015.