When Republicans took over Congress, they promised to govern. How'd they do?

Last January, when Mitch McConnell took over as Senate majority leader, the GOP vowed no more government shutdowns, no defaulting on the national debt.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters after the Senate approved a year-end budget package that boosts federal agency spending and awards tax cuts to both families and an array of business interests, at the Capitol in Washington Dec. 18.

When Republicans took control of Congress at the start of this year, they promised to govern responsibly. No more government shutdowns. No defaulting on the national debt. They’d unstop the dam of dysfunction and get stuff done.

With the new year about to begin, the verdict is in: 2015 was one of the most productive years on Capitol Hill since divided government set in five years ago. The government also paid its bills and the lights stayed on, despite shutdown threats.

“The Republicans, particularly in the Senate, soared over a very low bar,” says Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank in Washington. Much credit goes to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky for opening up the legislative process – and to Democrats for taking part as a cooperative minority, Mr. Grumet says.

Americans may not yet have noticed. In December, they gave Congress an abysmally low approval rating of 13 percent, according to Gallup. That’s perhaps understandable, given the near meltdown in the House when GOP hardliners drove Speaker John Boehner to a surprise resignation in October. Daily, presidential candidates tell Americans how terrible things are in Washington.

And yet, Congress did its basic job of keeping the government funded – passing a $1.1 trillion spending bill that takes the government through the end of September.

It also passed a $680 billion package that extended or made permanent tax breaks for individuals and businesses. Among other beneficiaries, it helps students, renewable energy, and low-income Americans and adds certainty to business. Grumet and many others complain that it also adds to the deficit.

Beyond that, lawmakers from both parties agreed on significant legislation. The first long-term highway and mass transit bill in a decade will finally allow states to get going on bigger projects that have been put off due to a lack of federal commitment.

Congress also reformed the much-maligned, and long-debated, No Child Left Behind law. Federal testing will continue, but states can set up their own accountability systems.

Other bipartisan measures that passed this year: restrictions on the government’s ability to collect bulk data on Americans’ phone use; a fix to a long-standing problem in Medicare reimbursements to doctors; increased defense spending at a time when the Islamic State is flexing its muscles; a measure to help the president get free-trade deals through Congress; and a bill to help victims of sex trafficking.

“By any objective standard, it’s been a year of significant accomplishment,” said Senator McConnell at his year-end press conference Dec. 18. Just a half hour before, Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said much the same thing, calling it “a successful year.”

He added: “All the things that my friends boast about – my Republican friends – we could have done them years ago, but they obstructed them. We’ve cooperated.”

There would not have been the opportunity to cooperate, however, had McConnell not made the conscious decision to open up the legislative process. He allowed for much more input than in the past, for instance, through amendments from both sides.

About 200 amendments came to the Senate floor this year, compared with just 15 last year, when the Senate was under Senator Reid’s control. The process sometimes exposed McConnell to attack from his own party – for instance from presidential candidates Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. But it also gave lawmakers a stake in the game.

Another difference was the Senate leader’s decision to push bill-making back to committees, rather than hatch them in the leader’s office, which had become more and more the practice. Returning to “regular order” not only empowers lawmakers but increases the chance that a bill will pass, because partisan differences can be worked out early on.

Both of those differences were central to getting education reform passed, said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, on the July day when 81 senators lined up behind the bill affecting 100,000 public schools, 3.5 million teachers, and 50 million students.

When McConnell promised amendments would be allowed on the bill, Senator Alexander was able to assure committee members that if they couldn’t leave their fingerprints on the bill in committee, they would have another opportunity on the Senate floor. That contributed to the bill passing unanimously out of committee – unheard of for such a contentious issue.

And leaving the shaping of the bill to the committee allowed Alexander and the ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, to come up with a bipartisan draft to put before members. 

After amendments, “the second thing McConnell did was stay out of it” and let him run it with Senator Murray, Alexander said. “He put the committees in charge and that's how we got this result.” 

At his press conference, McConnell was effusive in praise for Murray and other Democrats who played a key role in major legislation this year, calling their work "spectacular" and "unbelievably good." 

The new House speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, is also trying to get back to “regular order” and be more inclusive, particularly with his renegade right flank. The speaker has enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts with this approach.

“It is such an obvious and shocking insight that when you allow people to express themselves, they feel better about the process regardless of the outcome, than when you don’t allow them to express themselves,” says Grumet.

Both Republican leaders say they will continue to drive toward a more open, regular process, which next year will include an effort to pass spending bills individually, rather than have them all pile up at the end of the year. They also say they will look for common ground where it is to be found – perhaps on judicial reform.

But expect them to also draw sharp contrasts with Democrats. Next week, Republicans in Congress plan to send President Obama a budget reconciliation bill that repeals most of Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood. The president will veto it, but that’s the point of a messaging effort such as this.

Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan’s top priority is to come up with a GOP agenda as the nation heads into a presidential election. Exactly what that will look like – and whether he can unite his fractious caucus behind it – remains to be seen.

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