Paul Ryan, a highway bill, and the political virtue of patience

A long-term highway bill, passed by the House Thursday, took years to work its way to the surface of a Congress that was never designed for the quick fix.

Martinez Monsivais/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin smiles during his news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. The House has voted to continue transportation programs for six years with no significant increase in spending.

In the new House of Ryan, where lawmakers have been promised a greater say in legislating, members burned the midnight oil this week as they worked through scores of amendments to overwhelmingly pass a six-year, bipartisan highway bill on Thursday.

It was the first long-term bill in a decade to repair America’s crumbling roads, bridges, and transit systems, and members jumped at the new opportunity to give their input.

“There’s a lot of pent-up, legislative energy around here, and when a real piece of legislation comes along that impacts every district in America dramatically … then a lot of people have a lot of ideas,” says Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee and lead co-sponsor of the bill.

The past few days have taught a lesson: patience. But ask Congressman DeFazio, and he'll say the patience needed to bring this bill to reality has been measured in years, not hours or days. He’s been working toward this day since he was named a subcommittee chairman in 2007. His own president resisted his efforts. Then the House changed hands.

Even now, he acknowledges, the bill isn't what he wanted, since it keeps spending flat and is funded for only three years. But after such a long slog, he's pleased. “I’ve never really stopped working on it.”

In life, patience is a virtue, and on Capitol Hill, doubly so. Congress was never designed for the quick fix. The Founding Fathers deliberately created two very different chambers so that there would be an opportunity for “second thoughts,” as former Senate historian Don Ritchie puts it.

Turning ideas into a workable form and winning backing for a bill as big as this requires educating members, hearing them out, negotiating, and working with outside interests. It can take years to get to yes. 

The hurry-up Congress

Yet that’s easily forgotten or dismissed by some newcomers. This is especially true in the age of Twitter, when voters know instantly what their senator or representative did – or didn’t do – and then make their demands for instant results immediately known.

Consider freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a man in a hurry to become president. He got fed up with the slow pace of the Senate, where in his first year in 2011 he asked in a floor speech, “Do we just stand around and do nothing?”

For lawmakers who were once top dogs at home – Senator Rubio was speaker of the House in Florida – it’s frustrating to arrive as a pup in a slow-moving Congress that values seniority.

In his early years, Rubio was left to author symbolic resolutions such as one that congratulated the Miami Heat for their NBA championship. He got his big break when he joined the “Gang of Eight” senators who pushed bipartisan immigration reform through the Senate in 2013. Then he watched it die slowly from neglect in the House.

If he’s elected president, “we can begin to fix some of these issues that I’ve been so frustrated we’ve been unable to address during my time in the Senate,” Rubio told NBC’s Matt Lauer recently. Has the Floridian talked to President Obama – himself a sprinting former senator – about the frustrations of working with Congress, even when your party controls both houses?

John Boehner underscored the need for patience when he gave up the speaker’s gavel to Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin last week. “Real change takes time,” the outgoing speaker said to a packed chamber, as he reflected on his accomplishments. “Freedom makes all things possible. But patience is what makes all things real.”

A subtle dig at the hard-line, rebellious Freedom Caucus, who drove him out of the speakership?

“When you get people who are impatient and ideologically driven, they feel like fish out of water” in Congress, says former House historian Raymond Smock. “The truth of the matter is, they are, because ideology is the opposite of pragmatism.”

A functioning Congress requires its members to want to govern, Mr. Smock says. Many people have many ideas on how to fix things, but the country is a big, wide place and the world is complicated. “Things are not so simple, and ideology tends to make things simple.”

He quotes former Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill: “If you want efficient government, get yourself a dictatorship.”

The 'seven-year principle'

Frustration with the slowly turning gears of Congress is not new. Howard Shuman, an aide to former Sen. Paul Douglas (D) of Illinois during the civil rights fights of the 1950s and ’60s, told historian Ritchie in an oral history about his “seven-year principle.”

That’s how long he found it took to get from the inception of a significant legislative idea to its passage. 

“Most of the major legislation I worked on, that was new, forward looking, which started out heavily opposed and without a mandate, after seven years of convincing, of publicity, of talking, of arguing, of hearings, finally made it.... It took that much time, and that much effort, and that much struggle to come off. ‘Struggle’ is the word.”

In truth, the battle over the highway bill isn't even finished yet. It could get full, six-year funding when House and Senate negotiators come together to hammer out the final version.

At points, Congress has tried to make itself more efficient. After World War II, for instance, it tried joint committees, so witnesses wouldn’t have to testify twice. It didn’t work, mainly because the House and Senate are such different bodies – one controlled by the majority, the other designed to operate more by consensus.

Crises, such as wars and economic catastrophes, can speed up action. And when things get really stuck, lawmakers try changing the rules – such as Speaker Ryan says he wants to do. Ironically, by opening up the process so that his members – particularly the Freedom Caucus – have more say and fewer gripes, it will take longer to get things done. On the other hand, it may also give him the buy-in he needs to move bills forward.

“Everyone wants to feel part of the process and have their proposal considered,” says Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida, the former chairman of the Transportation Committee, in an interview. Speaker Boehner, too, opened up the process when he took over, but power eventually massed back at the top – partly for greater efficiency.

This goes in cycles, says Congressman Mica. “Now that there’s been a rebellion, we’ll go back to this open process and see how it works.”

DeFazio, on the other side of the aisle, thinks it could work well. 

“This is the way it used to be. We got more things done back then, even though it was more time consuming.”

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