WASHINGTON — In January, the 114th Congress was gaveled into session under new management: after a sweeping electoral victory in the 2014 elections, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate for the first time in eight years.
In the first seven months of the new-look Congress, did anything actually change?
MinnPost checked in with members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation to hear what they thought of the session so far. Broadly, they agreed that Congress has plenty of room to do better, and public polling continues to back that up: as of late July, barely one out of six Americans approved of Congress’ performance.
Democratic and Republican members sounded sharply different notes in explaining why Americans remain frustrated with Congress, but to some, this session has already yielded major progress.
Finally, movement on K-12 education reform
If nothing else, Congress can say it did something it had failed to do for 13 years: get versions of K-12 education reform passed in both the House and Senate. Lawmakers had been at odds over how to revamp the No Child Left Behind education bill — which passed in 2002 — leading to gridlock that frustrated education advocates and prompted the Obama administration to simply bypass sections of the law.
Later in the year, a committee of lawmakers from both parties and chambers — chaired by 2nd District Rep. John Kline, author of the House bill — will meet to hammer out differences between their bills before a final version can be sent to the president’s desk. Whatever legislation emerges from the conference committee will roll back much of the high-stakes testing regimen and school sanctions imposed by NCLB. But the Senate bill is considered more moderate than the House bill, and Kline will have to reconcile that with the goals of conservatives in the House GOP.
Having come this far, though, lawmakers will be pressed to finally pass reform. Just the fact that they’re this close is an achievement.
Sen. Al Franken, who attached several provisions onto the senate bill, lauded it as a bipartisan, “comprehensive overhaul” to No Child Left behind.
Obama signs Walz veterans’ mental health measure
Congress may not agree on much, but on at least one issue — veterans — nearly all members will band together. The 114th Congress moved early to pass legislation strengthening the quality of mental health care for servicemembers, in response to greater scrutiny of combat veterans’ mental health challenges as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ performance on the issue.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, or the SAV Act, was introduced in the House by 1st District Rep. Tim Walz, and was signed into law by President Obama in February. It was named for Clay Hunt, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who found little support from the VA after returning home from war. He died by suicide in 2011.
Walz said his bill was one of the few bright spots in a session of Congress he views as lackluster thus far. “For the most part,” Walz said, “the Veterans Affairs committee has risen above the partisanship.”
House passes medical research funding bill
While Congress is eager to come together to show support for veterans, it tends to not overwhelmingly support items like the 21st Century Cures Act, a sweeping package that spends more on medical research and reforms some of the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory powers. In July, though, the House did exactly that, passing the bill by a count of 344 to 77.
The 21st Century Cures act aims to give agencies like the National Institutes of Health the resources they need to develop new medicines and make progress in understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s. The bill would allocate to the NIH nearly $9 billion in additional funding over the next five years. The FDA would also get close to half a billion dollars in new funding, and it would be granted the authority to streamline approval of new medical devices.
With its focus on health research and medical devices, it’s no surprise that all of Minnesota’s representatives enthusiastically backed the bill. (Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan, Erik Paulsen, and Tim Walz co-sponsored it.)
Walz, whose southern Minnesota district stands to benefit greatly from the law, said in a statement that the bill’s passage demonstrates “how our Congress is supposed to work…In a bipartisan manner to improve Americans’ quality of life.” Paulsen hailed it as a “result of bipartisan work” that will make a difference in people’s lives.
The bill still awaits a vote in the Senate.
Doc fix fixed
21st Century Cures wasn’t the only health care-related area where lawmakers found room to compromise: In April, Congress finally addressed Medicare’s so-called “doc fix,” a long-running Washington fiasco often held up as a textbook example of short-sighted, illogical legislating. (Or, depending on who you ask, “Congress’ dumbest ritual.”)
The problem started in 1997, when Congress reconfigured the amount doctors got paid for seeing Medicare patients. That ended up translating into escalating cuts in physician pay, so to prevent doctors from fleeing Medicare, Congress passed stop-gap measures to prevent the pay cuts from taking effect. Over the course of more than a decade, Washington dug itself a deep, multi-multi-billion-dollar hole.
After spending nearly two years developing a plan, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both houses passed a fix to the doc fix, which was promptly signed by President Obama. It hardly dominated headlines, but it was quietly hailed as one of the most important moments of bipartisan cooperation in a long time — though no one has any illusions that a long-term agreement on Medicare and Medicaid is possible.
Still, it was cause for relief on Capitol Hill. “We found a permanent fix,” Paulsen said. “Now we never have to deal with that again.”
Movement on diplomatic thaw with Cuba
No one would have believed it even a year ago, but 2015 has been a historic year for relations between the U.S. and Cuba. While the White House takes much of the credit, Congress — and particularly the Minnesota delegation — has also played an important role.
To recap an eventful year: in December 2014, after months of talks, President Obama announced a prisoner exchange with Cuba, and an intention to normalize relations with the communist island nation. Shortly after Congress convened, Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced a bill that would effectively end the half-century-old trade embargo on Cuba. Last month, U.S. and Cuban embassies officially re-opened in Havana and Washington; a week later, Rep. Tom Emmer introduced his own House bill lifting the embargo, announcing that “the time has come for a change in our policy toward Cuba.”
No votes have been held yet, but Congress has kept pace with the diplomatic events unfolding elsewhere — no small feat, considering the substantial opposition to U.S.–Cuba detente that remains among some Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Last-minute Confederate flag amendment sinks spending bill
Late one night in July, just as the House was wrapping up its business for the day, Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ken Calvert received a last-minute amendment to his massive spending bill: without mentioning the word “Confederate flag,” it would have protected display of the rebel banner in certain situations on federal parkland.
4th District Rep. Betty McCollum was on the floor, and realized what it was — a last-ditch attempt to “sweeten” the spending bill in order to secure conservative votes. The issue quickly blew up the next day: Democrats lined up to speak on the House floor next to a printed-out rebel flag and denounced it as a symbol of terror — one made horrifically relevant again by the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina.
Facing a revolt, GOP leadership — which had sent the amendment to the floor — pulled the bill from consideration. To some, the episode exemplified everything wrong with Congress in 2015: leadership resorting to an ill-conceived tactic to wrangle its conservative caucus into voting for a basic spending bill, only to have the gambit backfire, thus tabling the bill as it neared passage.
The status of the bill remains unclear, but party leaders say various items — including the flag provision — are being negotiated. Last week, McCollum — the Democratic floor manager for the interior spending bill — said the GOP “failed to get the appropriations bill done because they had to go to such extremes, with erroneous riders, to get their members to pass it. They can’t get their work done.”
Paulsen was a bit more reserved. “We got hung up,” he said. Ever the optimist, he added: “But we’re still ahead of schedule.”
Transportation continues to be kicked down pothole-ridden road
Everyone — Republicans, Democrats, labor, business — wants a long-term transportation funding bill. Despite the preponderance of bipartisan will to act, lawmakers hit traffic again on the way to moving a comprehensive transportation bill through both houses, instead passing a short-term funding extension for the 34th time in eight years.
The situation was the result of some unexpected dysfunction between House and Senate GOP leaders. In late July, the Senate tried to ram a bipartisan highway bill through Congress that was drafted without input from the House, which had already passed a six-month extension. The House refused to consider the Senate bill, forcing the upper chamber to pass a less-ambitious extension.
The episode was arguably the most widely shared disappointment of the entire session thus far. Democrats were generally eager to blame it on GOP internal strife. Rep. McCollum said, “Republican leadership knows there are people on their side of the aisle that are disgusted with kicking can down the road and not getting any work done that they’re attaching it to a veterans bill,” referring to the extension’s pairing with a veterans health care law in one bill.
Rep. Walz added, “The idea of a great nation budgeting two months at a time…Some folks thought we should run government like a business, and there’s no business that runs on those terms.” Lawmakers have until the end of October to agree on a long-term fix.
Department of Homeland Security nearly shuts down
While now distant in Congress’ rear-view mirror and obscured by newer, fresher embarrassments, the near shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security this winter stands out as a prime example of time-consuming brinksmanship.
In January, GOP lawmakers arrived on the Hill determined to find a way to overturn President Obama’s executive action to allow five million undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S.
Eventually, they settled on DHS funding — which was set to expire at the end of February — as a way to force the administration into giving in on immigration.
Back-and-forth brinkmanship continued until past the 11th hour, when Obama signed a one-week extension of DHS funding through the first week of March. Ultimately, House Speaker John Boehner caved, advancing a “clean” funding bill free of immigration language, which easily passed the House.
At the time, Minnesota legislators expressed relief the debacle was behind them. Unfortunately for them, DHS funding is set to expire again, soon after legislators return from vacation.
Klobuchar human trafficking bill gets held up by bitter abortion fight
The Senate likes to think of itself as having higher standards of decorum and collegiality than the House — and for the most part, senators have worked across the aisle on a variety of issues so far. But inter-party fighting reached a low point this spring, when Republicans quietly added anti-abortion language onto a bipartisan, anti-human trafficking bill introduced by Sen. Klobuchar that had just cleared committee.
Despite the fact that nearly all senators supported the bill, the abortion language sent the Senate into finger-pointing that lasted for weeks, with Democrats accusing Republicans of politicizing an important bill and vowing to block it until the language was removed. The bickering ultimately resulted in a stalemate that grew so consuming, it delayed the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Ultimately, Klobuchar and her colleagues reached a compromise that saved the anti-trafficking bill and placated abortion opponents. On May 29, nearly three months after being brought to the floor, President Obama signed it into law. Klobuchar and Rep. Paulsen, who introduced the House version of the bill, were present.
With that behind them, senators are now poised to lose faith in one another in a new, upcoming abortion battle — this time, involving funding of Planned Parenthood.
Pessimism abounds, but there’s still time to act
In light of what’s looming ahead — a vote on the Iran deal, battles to fund the government and highways — members of the delegation emphasized that Congress needs to do better. And they didn’t unanimously doubt that possibility. “It has to get better,” McCollum said. “I come to work optimistic. The American people expect more from us.” Over in the Senate, Franken added he’d been working hard to reach across the aisle to get things done, but said, “We still have a lot that needs to get done this year.” Klobuchar added she hopes Republicans “will come back in September ready to work with Democrats on the challenges that must be addressed before the end of the year.”
Emmer struck a similar note. Congress, the freshman says, has been “better than I expected. That doesn’t mean it’s good. But we’re moving in the right direction.”
Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson, for his part, says he’s been the target of bipartisan cooperation from the Republicans — a novel concept. “Before, they were kind of like, we’re gonna do this, we’re Republicans, to hell with you guys,” he says.
But Keith Ellison saw little to like. Overall, he gave Congress an “F.” “The only reason it’s not an F minus is that they haven’t shut down the government,” Ellison said.
He acknowledged, though, there’s still time for that.