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Why Congress is finally making progress on two tough issues

Both houses overwhelmingly passed the first long-term highway bill in a decade. Next week, a long-disputed education bill is expected to clear Congress, as well.

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    Heavy traffic on the Kennedy Expressway near Chicago's Loop business district on Nov. 23, 2015. A study by the American Highway Users Alliance, also released on Nov. 23, describes this 12-mile stretch as the nation's worst traffic bottleneck, costing motorists 16.9 million hours last year and about 6.3 million gallons in wasted fuel.
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Despite the partisan rancor in Congress this week – the umpty-umpth attempt to repeal Obamacare, clashes over government funding, guns, and Planned Parenthood – lawmakers are actually making progress on a couple of very tough issues.

On Thursday, both houses overwhelmingly passed a five-year transport and mass transit bill – the first long-term “highway” bill in a decade. Next out the door will be a makeover of the contentious “No Child Left Behind” law, which expired in 2007.

What’s the secret sauce? And can it be sprinkled over other contentious issues, such as what to do about mass shootings like the one in San Bernardino, Calif.?

There may be sauce, but it’s not really secret.

Those who work on the Hill or follow it closely know the recipe. What brought these bills to fruition are pretty basic ingredients: loud public clamoring to do something and leaders from both sides working together to get it done. And patience.

Ask Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, who is the former chair of the House transportation committee, why lawmakers were finally able to agree on a long-term highway bill and he sums it up in one word.

“Demand.”

America’s crumbling infrastructure is now too vast to be fixed by short-term funding patches. States and the US Chamber of Commerce have been pleading for years for a long-term bill so governments and businesses can reliably plan their projects. Voters complain about congestion.

What everyone got this week was a $305 billion package that will keep the tap open for highways, mass transit, and rail for five years – and revive the expired Export-Import Bank as part of the deal. It even increases funding for road and transit, though critics complain of funding gimmicks.

You could also see demand at work in the education bill. Teachers, parents, and administrators have complained mightily about a culture of overtesting and the federal mandates triggered by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

As in economics, so in politics, there’s no balance unless supply meets demand – in this case, the supply of committee leaders willing to work on a bipartisan basis.

Getting a long-term highway bill done has been a top priority for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California as her Hill career winds down after more than 30 years.

As the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she and the chairman, Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, are polar opposites on global warming. But they worked closely together on a bipartisan highway bill.

She negotiated with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky to bring it to the floor last summer, and then she leaped tall buildings to get it passed. One of those obstacles was her formidable colleague, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, No. 2 in Democratic leadership, who was pushing a different approach.

Similarly, the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate education panel joined forces on their education bill earlier this year. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee said he got “good advice” from Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington to draft the bill together, instead of setting off down the road on his own, which is the chairman’s prerogative.

Next week senators are expected to easily support a bill that largely reflects their work – requiring reading and math testing in public schools, but leaving the goal-setting and corrective measures to states and school districts. It passed the House on Wednesday, 359 to 64.

Meanwhile, both of these issues – if not these specific bills – have been patiently worked on for years. “They’ve been in the grinder a long time,” says Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Grumet points to other bipartisan legislation – on trade, surveillance, and Medicare reform – that Congress passed this year. But he doesn’t believe that gun laws will be added to the list anytime soon, despite mounting public pressure from mass shootings.

“You can’t align the gun issue with the highway bill. They just come from different places,” he says.

Highways and education may have histories, but the Second Amendment is grounded in the country’s revolutionary birth. Its place in the Constitution goes all the way back to 1791.

People may be passionate about potholes and schooling, but the degree of passion, division, and lobbying over gun rights puts it in a category of its own.

That division came starkly to view on Thursday when Republican and Democratic senators sparred sharply over competing amendments on a narrow slice of gun regulation: preventing a suspected or known terrorist from buying guns. Both measures failed. 

Democrats, meanwhile, said the time for “moments of silence” after shooting massacres was over – it is time for moments of action.

Tragedies such as San Bernardino highlight the issue, says Grumet, but “what it will require are leaders who have credibility in the two camps having the courage to say ‘we’re going to try to move this process forward.’ ”

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