Welcome to the first issue of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new magazine. Each quarter, BPC will share its take on the workings of American democracy. I would like to begin our inaugural edition by sharing that it’s bad out there—really, really, maddeningly bad. Congress continues to visit self-inflicted wounds on the fragile economy. The relationship between the executive and legislative branches is diminished and brittle. Most disconcerting, the destructive behavior of many politicians is a completely rational response to the demands of the small percentage of constituents who actually vote. When you roll this all together, BPC’s conclusion is:
Our optimism is informed by 240 years of resiliency and by a series of recent legislative accomplishments achieved despite polarization. This is not the first time Congress has been immobilized by passionate movements that embrace different rules. In these moments, it can take a frustratingly long time for pragmatists to modify their conduct in response. The beginnings of this necessary reaction are taking root among the electorate, within the parties, and on the Hill.
After several years of “stand-your-ground” ascendancy, national polls are shifting away from the extremes, giving more breathing room to those who work across the aisle. While the fringes of both parties tend to dominate headlines, there is a core group in both chambers, from both parties, who seek real dialogue, substantive debate, and collaborative solutions. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has committed to both empower individual members and to govern. To be successful, Ryan will occasionally have to forgo the “Hastert Rule” and work across the aisle to round up a majority. Ryan’s effort to make it harder to oust the speaker indicates awareness that he will have to make some tough political decisions. On the Senate side, a constructive conversation is underway on filibuster reform. Initial conversations have focused on approaches to sustain the filibuster during substantive debate while limiting its use on procedural motions. It will not happen overnight, but the rules will evolve in reaction to rigidity on the edges.
Despite the challenges, the last nine months have been far more productive than most people realize. The Senate has spent more time in session, there has been a dramatic increase in amendments allowed during floor debate, and committees in both chambers have passed many more bills. Benefiting from the improved process, the legislature passed a number of significant measures. Congress solved the chronic Medicare problem in paying doctors, and it extended the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Congress adopted legislation reining in the National Security Agency, and it gave the president fast-track trade authority. The recently adopted budget deal required both parties to show significant flexibility by avoiding another economy-crushing standoff, and the agreement gives Ryan some time to establish his leadership and work to implement a more open process. Moreover, a number of broadly supported efforts wait in the queue, including legislation to update No Child Left Behind and a modernization of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Time will tell if this is a turning point toward confronting big challenges, from health care and tax reform to energy policy and national security.
At BPC, we recognize that Congress is soaring over a very low bar. Moreover, the approaching election is likely to inhibit recent progress. With eyes wide open, BPC will continue to seize opportunities to advance the policy process and do our best to create incentives that reward collaboration. Our democracy is surely challenged, but it is by no means defeated.