Here, in the very early stages, is what divided government looks like: a measure providing agricultural aid to developing countries; legislation allowing parents of disabled children to save tax-free for long-term expenses; changes that will speed federal approval of new sunscreen products.
Despite gloomy predictions of continued acrimony and gridlock, these bills and a handful of others suddenly stand a strong chance of making it into law by year’s end.
While these measures share some obvious characteristics — they all enjoy strong bipartisan support and would affect vulnerable populations — they also hint at a broader trend. After an extended period of dysfunction on Capitol Hill, weary lawmakers and administration officials are eager to show a disaffected electorate that they can make modest changes to the way government functions.
There are plenty of signs that President Obama and congressional Republicans remain on a collision course — this week, over energy and possibly immigration. So it is not clear that the successful passage of these bills would spill over into more-contentious parts of the legislative arena, such as trade and tax reform.But, at least for the moment, there are some very concrete results.
“This is the beginning of green shoots,” said Rich Gold, who heads Holland & Knight’s public policy practice and represents the coalition backing the Sunscreen Innovation Act. “What you’re seeing with these bills is that, even with the general gap yawning between the two parties, there’s a beginning vision of what the government should be doing going forward.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is spearheading an effort to pass as many bills as possible that have already cleared the House and have at least had hearings in the Senate. While they deal with a range of topics — from using foreign visa fees to promote U.S. tourism abroad to collecting taxes on Internet sales — she said they all reflect compromise and could make it easier to strike broader deals in the next congressional session.
“For the institution, Congress, it’s important to get the grease in the wheels again,” Klobuchar said in an interview. “Even if we don’t pass all of them, going into the first six months it is going to make people feel better about the work they do, and it’s going let the public see things can get done.”
The sunscreen bill, for example, would accelerate the timeline for Food and Drug Administration approval of new ingredients that could guard against skin cancer. The FDA has not broadened its list of approved sunscreen ingredients since 1999; some applications have been pending for more than a decade.
Gold noted that each time he met with the bill’s primary Republican sponsor, Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), to discuss its prospects, “he would ask, ‘Really, there’s nobody opposed?’ We had this conversation six times.”
While getting the FDA to move faster on a consumer-protection item may not seem like a heavy legislative lift, the fact that Congress is also poised to authorize $1.1 billion in annual funding for an international food aid program is more remarkable. On Sept. 18, a group of Democrats and Republicans from both chambers introduced legislation to make Feed the Future, a program that launched under the Obama administration, permanent.
In its last two years, the George W. Bush administration started providing money to strengthen the farming sectors in West Africa and elsewhere, hoping to counter a spike in global food prices. In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development formally launched the initiative, partnering with private companies to help expand agricultural capacity in the developing world; last year it helped feed more than 12.5 million children and improved the operations of more than 7 million small farmers.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah called the program “an extraordinarily successful example of how we can do our development work very differently,” noting that it has enlisted 70 companies that together have pledged to invest at least $10 billion. Shah has worked with several conservative Republicans, including Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (N.J.), to push for permanent authorization.
Johanns, one of the bill’s primary co-sponsors, said the program has attracted such broad and deep support because it stands out as an area where the government is “doing something important, and we’re doing it well.”
“This has been such a strange couple of years. Nothing’s been moving; we’ve been in full campaign mode,” Johanns said. “Something like this comes along, and it’s like: ‘Cease fire. Everybody, let this one go through.’ ”
The fact that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has exacerbated food insecurity in the region, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said, has added urgency to the cause.
“When we feed hungry people in low-income countries, our Department of Defense will tell you it provides better stability to these countries,” said McCollum, who is sponsoring the House bill along with Smith.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) appears to be on a winning streak when it comes to squeaking through legislation in the waning days of the 113th Congress. In addition to the Feed the Future bill, which he co-authored, legislation he wrote with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) to boost research into traumatic brain injuries passed the House last week and is awaiting the president’s signature. His Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act is sponsored by two-thirds of the members of both chambers and appears likely to pass soon.
“It’s got support from the far left to the far right,” Casey said of the ABLE Act.
Monday night, the Senate approved legislation providing child-care and development assistance to low-income families and setting new standards for child-care providers, sending it on to the president.
Just because these measures have gained traction, however, does not mean that the two parties have reached a true reconciliation. Asked about which bills might make it through Congress before it recesses next month, Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), sent a list of 39 bills that Democrats greenlighted in August but that had yet to get Republican sign-off. He later revised the tally to 30; the actual count is 22.
“If Republicans are really ready to compromise we are ready and willing to work with them — the fact that we have done everything within our power to ready all of these bills for immediate passage is proof of that,” Jentleson wrote in an e-mail.
“The fact that some of these are starting to move now probably just shows that Republicans are trying to turn on the spigot just enough to serve their PR purposes but I think the smart approach would be to let results speak for themselves as the weeks and months progress.”
But Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wrote in an e-mail that many of the bills on the list “are things that could have been offered and voted on if Reid had allowed amendments.”
On Monday, Stewart identified one measure that could pass in the lame-duck Congress: approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. While that bill cleared the House by a wide margin last week, on Tuesday night it fell one vote short of the 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.