Congress Reinvigorating Rules of the Road

Recent polls summarize Americans' dismay with Congress. With an average approval rating stuck in the high single-digits, it's clear we have very low expectations.

While active skepticism of government is healthy, unwavering condemnation can be corrosive to a democracy that depends on participation. Fortunately, we see a glimmer of effective governance that contradicts the narrative of congressional incompetence as an embedded feature of our democracy.

While there has been rancorous debate and plenty of old-fashioned brinksmanship, this Congress has overcome deep divisions and some embarrassing procedural stumbles to pass major legislation on controversial issues like trade and government surveillance. This Congress was also able to craft a robust Medicare funding solution in the so-called "Doc-Fix" that ended an 18-year run of "can-kicking" and represents the first successful effort at entitlement reform in many years.

Compared to recent history, Republicans and Democrats are engaged in some meaningful collaborative efforts to confront real problems. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, who disagree on most issues, are working closely together to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act, an important but ineffective law regulating toxic chemicals that has not been debated since 1976.

And they're not alone. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) are making great strides on education reform and their bipartisan bill passed the Senate 81-17. Reps. Fred Upton (R-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) crafted a wide-ranging medical innovation bill titled 21st Century Cures that recently passed the House by 344-77 and has received encouraging reviews by leaders in the Senate. On energy policy, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) are demonstrating clear intent to move past unproductive debates over the Keystone Pipeline to craft legislation that can be signed into law.

While we should all applaud this recent progress, we can't overlook the dark clouds forming on the horizon. The imminent debate over the Iranian nuclear deal is off to a rocky start that threatens to overwhelm the goodwill and growing trust achieved through recent accomplishments. In addition, the Senate and House are quickly running out of time to craft the appropriation bills needed to avoid another shutdown crisis in the fall. Finally, the 2016 presidential cycle is amplifying incentives to highlight divisions and reward rigidity.

Against these headwinds, Congress must double down on efforts that foster interaction, deliberation and debate. The Bipartisan Policy Center's Commission on Political Reform has issued recommendations that seek to improve the political process in spite of the polarized atmosphere. Key proposals include more time legislating in Washington, strengthening committee work, using conference committees, opening up the amendment process, and adhering to regular order and disclosing of campaign contributions.

BPC is now tracking Congress's progress against our recommendations through the quarterly Healthy Congress Index, a long-term effort to bring accountability to Congress and help people answer the question: "How is Congress governing?"

There is more work to do, but the early signs are that Congress has started off in the right direction. There has been more time in session, more debate in committee, more amendments in the Senate and more legislation signed by the president. While the data is not adequate to assert a precise correlation or even causal link between the improved process and increased productivity, it is encouraging nonetheless.

While frustration with Congress remains completely justified, we must not become so enamored with our disdain that we become blind to progress. Most important, we must not become so comfortable with our low expectations that we fail to acknowledge and reward those who are doing the hard work to move our nation forward.

Jason Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Follow him on Twitter at @JasonGrumet.