13 Jul / Getting Good Things Done in a Dysfunctional Congress
There’s plenty of evidence that Congress isn’t doing its job. Instead of conducting responsible oversight of government spending, it has wasted nearly $7 million on a Benghazi investigation discredited as little more than a partisan sham. The House has voted more than 40 times to repeal Obamacare, unsuccessfully, but refuses to schedule a vote on gun control. The last three Congresses have been among the least productive in recent times, and a shrinking percentage of the laws passed can be deemed “significant.” Capitol Hill has dithered on providing funds to address the Zika outbreak and has failed to authorize, expand or constrain the U.S. intervention in Syria.
In spite of the growing partisan divide and shrinking appetite for compromise, there are three recent examples of successful cross-party cooperation in the foreign policy arena. In February, the Electrify Africa Act – designed to promote first-time access to power services for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020, building on an Obama Administration initiative – was passed by both houses and signed into law. Last week, the House completed action on the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA), requiring public reporting and consistent evaluations of foreign assistance spending, and the Global Food Security Act (GFSA), authorizing $1 billion annually to promote global food security, resilience, and nutrition. These two measures now move to the President’s desk for signature.
While in their final form, each of these measures fell short of initial ambitions, the lesson to be drawn is that under the right conditions, members of both parties can and do work together to get things done. So what are these conditions – and how can they be created?
Here are 6 key factors:
- Administration support. It is much easier to codify official policy than to impose new requirements or restrictions. In all three cases, the bills sought to advance and institutionalize work that was already being carried out by the Administration. Progress became possible on FATAA and GFSA only after the Executive Branch stopped fighting them.
- Leadership investment. All three bills were sponsored or cosponsored by the Chairman and/or Ranking Member of the committee of jurisdiction. Electrify Africa was an initiative of the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Foreign Affairs and Foreign Relations Committees; the other two measures were developed in close consultation with committee and party leadership.
- No cost. None of the bills authorized new or additional spending. Only the GFSA mentions funding levels at all, and its authorization of $1 billion is in line with previously appropriated amounts (although it is slightly above the FY17 request).
- Non-contentious. All three bills had bipartisan support, and none required floor debate. They passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House on suspension of the rules (which requires a 2/3 vote for approval). Since it was unlikely that they would be granted precious floor time for debate, the bills were largely pre-negotiated between committees, parties, and branches of government.
- Strong advocacy. Although these measures did not receive wide public notice, they were tirelessly promoted by an active and highly-motivated constituency: development NGOs and coalitions. These groups not only lobbied Congress and the Administration, but gained the support of the private sector and worked to ensure there would be no “losers”.
- FATAA and the GFSA in particular were the products of many years of determined effort and torch-passing. The transparency and evaluations bill grew out of a foreign aid reform measure proposed by Rep. Howard Berman in 2009, and found its current form in legislation first introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Ted Poe in 2012. The food security bill originated even earlier, initially sponsored by Senator Lugar in 2008.
In general, bills that provide additional authority and support for foreign aid have been far more difficult to pass than those to cut and constrain it. But as the recent passage of these three pro-development bills proves, even with a dysfunctional Congress and a highly polarized electorate, it’s not impossible to get a few good things done in Washington.
Diana Ohlbaum is a Principal at turner4D and available to help our clients develop effective Congressional policy strategies in this challenging legislative environment.