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In what promises to be a hard-fought election year, what might Congress actually accomplish?

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Earlier this year, MinnPost asked members of the Minnesota congressional delegation what they wanted to accomplish in 2016: comprehensive tax reform, lifting the trade embargo on Cuba, raising the federal minimum wage.

But it’s an election year, and Congress doesn’t have a stellar record of getting big bills passed in those. Staffers and lawmakers themselves openly treat 2016 as a legislative dead zone.

So, what will Congress actually get done this year? Despite the challenges, members of both parties are cautiously optimistic that conditions aren’t terrible for the legislative branch to accomplish a few significant, if not headline-grabbing, policy goals.

Here are five areas in which Congress could make meaningful progress this year:

Criminal justice reform

Last year saw an unprecedented number of politicians from both parties question the effectiveness and wisdom of the American criminal justice system as currently constructed. This year could be when they actually do something about it.

The effort to implement meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system has been strongest in the Senate, where liberal and conservative lawmakers alike have united around a few changes that reform advocates have been pushing.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a package last fall that would roll back mandatory minimum sentencing, ban solitary confinement for minors, strengthen programs to reduce recidivism rates, and give judges more flexibility in sentencing.

That package cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel upon which Sen. Amy Klobuchar sits. She, along with Sen. Al Franken, has been broadly supportive of criminal justice reforms. Specifically, Klobuchar has pushed the idea of increasing the role of drug treatment courts, an alternative to the traditional court system, for low-level offenders with addiction problems.

Klobuchar said in a statement that she is “hopeful” something will pass this year, but said “there are some issues with the bill in the House,” and added that the Senate bill still awaits the amendment process, so it could still change.

Franken, who called the criminal justice system “broken” in a statement, has a few measures aimed at helping. In 2015, he introduced the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, which aims to help those in the system who suffer from mental illness. It includes measures to offer greater support for treatment courts and addicts, reduce recidivism, and help facilities better identify mentally ill inmates. House Speaker Paul Ryan mentioned Franken’s bill as one of two criminal justice bills he’d like to see passed in the House this year, and it’s already passed the Senate.

On the larger package that cleared the Judiciary Committee, Franken said it isn’t a perfect bill, but added he was “heartened to see Republicans and Democrats come together… and I’m hopeful we can move forward and pass the legislation in the full Senate this year.”

In his final State of the Union, Obama mentioned criminal justice reform as one of just a few areas where he could work with Congress to get something done. The fact that his support hasn’t made the issue toxic for the congressional GOP is indicative of the progress Washington could make.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not said how he plans to proceed with the existing package, and some observers on the Hill question the GOP leader’s commitment to getting it through the Senate, where he has several vulnerable incumbents to protect.

But with Ryan vocally backing reform, and Obama making full use of his last year on the bully pulpit, it’s hard to see criminal justice reform being totally bypassed in 2016.

A lifeline to Puerto Rico

The sorry state of Puerto Rico’s finances — a problem that has been brewing for many years — finally received substantial congressional attention near the end of last year. The situation has grown untenable: Puerto Rico is $72 billion in debt, and its governor has said the island territory is in a “death spiral” it could not escape without substantial help.

Puerto Rican authorities are calling on Washington to send them much-needed cash, along with a way to restructure its massive debt — namely, Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which is used by municipalities for protection from creditors while they make a plan to pay off their debts.

Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, since it’s a territory, municipalities on the island don’t qualify for Chapter 9. And while lawmakers agree Puerto Rico has a serious problem, they don’t agree on how to address it.

In the Senate, the Finance Committee rolled out a plan in December that would inject $3 billion in emergency cash into the island’s coffers, and cut the federal payroll tax in half. But the plan doesn’t include Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.

In the House, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy has introduced a plan that would grant Puerto Rican cities and towns the ability to file for Chapter 9, but no cash aid. As a condition, however, Puerto Rican authorities would have to agree to an independent U.S. board’s mandatory prescriptions for fiscal health, including a balanced budget plan.

Ryan and McConnell have pledged to address the Puerto Rico issue this year — which many Democrats are expecting in exchange for their help in passing the omnibus funding package at the end of last year.

On the budget, a return to ‘regular order’

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle like to pay lip service to “regular order” — when Congress separately passes all 12 department-specific bills to appropriate funds to the federal government. Regular order hasn’t been so regular in recent years: the last time Congress successfully passed those dozen bills in time for the start of a new fiscal year was in 1994.

In lieu of regular order, over the last two decades, Congress has resorted to so-called omnibus bills, which package all the separate appropriations bills into one, giving lawmakers a single opportunity to vote — and making minor quibbles less likely to gum up the works.

To many, the breakdown of regular order is symptomatic of the broader breakdown in how Congress has functioned over the last 20 years. Those who remember the pre-omnibus era, like Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan, who served in Congress in the 1970s, have persistently called on congressional leadership to get back to regular order.

But it’s not just the old guard that’s pushing for it: the ascendant right wing of the GOP House conference, known as the Freedom Caucus, contains many legislative traditionalists who believe Congress must return to regular order. Ryan’s promise to return to regular order is what sold flighty Freedom Caucusers on his speakership — and they will be watching closely to see if he makes good on it. (If not, well, he could get the Boehner treatment.)

Veiled threats aside, the conditions aren’t bad for Congress to break the 20-year reign of the omnibus. For one, there will be no debate about funding levels, which were set for two years in last fall’s budget deal. And Congress made some progress last year, passing six appropriations bills after the process careened off the rails in July. With little else to do, both parties are eyeing regular order as one potential, if minor, victory.

TPP: a big question mark

One of the biggest congressional battles from 2015 faces an uncertain — but viable — path this year. Last summer, lawmakers voted for Trade Promotion Authority, which will allow President Obama to submit a big priority of his second term — the sweeping, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — for congressional approval on just an up-or-down vote, no amendments allowed.

Congressional leadership could schedule a vote on TPP as early as this summer — if it wanted to. But it’s fairly clear there is no huge appetite, even among trade backers, to put this deeply controversial issue before lawmakers in an election year.

While the free trade deal is liked by the establishment wings of both parties, the liberal and conservative bases have found much to dislike. On the left in particular, TPP has become a galvanizing issue, uniting progressive concerns about corporate greed, climate change, and income inequality. Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison was a lead in the anti-TPP fight last year, and has pledged to come out strong against it this year.

If a vote on TPP were scheduled before the November elections, it’d force vulnerable incumbents in both parties to take a potentially damaging on-record stance on the issue. For that reason, McConnell and other Hill leaders are almost certain to punt the issue until November or later.

But that doesn’t mean Congress won’t get to it this year. A lame-duck session at the end of 2016 could be the ideal time for Obama to get TPP through before his time in the White House is up. And if the country elects a candidate who is critical of the trade deal — Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, to name a few — there will be a powerful desire among Obama and his bipartisan allies to finalize TPP before it’s too late.

Keep planes flying, maybe

Members of Congress will tell you that they got a lot of important work done last year, and much of that work included the reauthorization of existing programs and legislation: highway funding, the Export-Import Bank, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act all received reauthorization and/or facelifts in 2015.

The next reauthorization fight on Congress’ horizon is pending legislation to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

In September, both chambers of Congress passed a six-month reauthorization of the FAA, bypassing tension under the surface on Capitol Hill: GOP lawmakers have a proposal that would privatize a good deal of the country’s air traffic control system.

Many, including Rep. Nolan, who sits on the Transportation Committee’s subpanel on aviation, are vehemently opposed to any privatization of the FAA. Lawmakers will need to address the subject by the end of March.

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