What does Washington do in between pointless votes to end Obamacare? A year or two ago, the answer would have been: more pointless votes meant to wound the president in the House, and virtually no votes at all in the Senate. There’s still plenty of that nonsense. Yet all of a sudden, the country’s politicians have actually begun accomplishing things, too, on a diverse set of issues that haven’t quite piqued partisan appetites for ideological red meat but that do really matter.
“The last two and a half years were like watching paint dry,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told me on Wednesday. Now, however, it’s “like night and day.”
Last month, Congress agreed on an ambitious reform of student loan interest rates. In the past, lawmakers and President Obama had used interest rate-setting policy as a political weapon, each party attacking the other for not caring enough about students and the families — always middle-class ones, naturally — they come from. It would have been easy enough simply to keep that up. Instead, the president rationally proposed linking student rates to the government’s cost of borrowing on a permanent basis. The House agreed, and the Senate worked out the fine details. Now the issue is politically neutralized, and the policy is stable for the foreseeable future.
This week, Obama argued for restructuring the government’s outsized role in the housing market, a signal of support for a bipartisan plan that Corker and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have been working on. Though a substantially different proposal is making its way through the House, it seems everyone agrees that the “government-sponsored agencies” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should cease to exist. Given that Republicans are on board with the Senate plan, compromise among all the players seems very possible, especially now that the president will push on it, too.
While they’re at it, lawmakers might also reform the struggling U.S. Postal Service. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has moved toward Democrats in his latest proposal to right the semi-independent organization’s disastrous finances. As of last week, the Senate is working on — you guessed it — a bipartisan compromise plan, from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The president has expressed support for reform in the vein of that which could result from more negotiation in Congress.
The Senate, of course, also passed a big immigration bill in June, in a 68-32 vote. That fact alone is impressive. Though the House is still working out what it will do on the issue, Republicans in that chamber now seem to be softening on providing illegal immigrants some pathway to legalized status.
Why are these lawmakers legislating for the right reasons, not merely in the interest of ideological comfort? This isn’t a big election year, voters in the last election didn’t hand either party a wave of support, and issues such as student loans and postal reform piled up on Congress’s plate. The Senate’s recent soul-searching and the resulting grand compromise on ending some of its gridlock probably helped. The president is playing a constructive role backing good policies and giving members of his party political cover to back them. And my guess is that there is some pent up desire among enough people, particularly some Republicans, to dispense with the childishness of the last few years — at least until the next unnecessary, politically manufactured budget crisis. A lot of these factors probably won’t induce good behavior for very long.
Congress’s late progress isn’t evidence that Washington is suddenly working. Rather, it’s a taste of what a more functional federal government looks like, the sort that will be hard to get unless we voters demand more of it.