Will the Senate Go Nuclear Again?

Put this in the “it’s not really nuclear” category. Despite several accounts reporting that Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) plans to go nuclear, don’t believe the headlines.

That said this is likely the most interesting thing that will happen in the Senate this year, at least from a procedural standpoint. After cloture is invoked Senator Lee will attempt to revote an Obamacare repeal amendment to the highway bill that is also carrying the Export-Import Bank authorization, which is the bill the Senator really wants to kill.

Unlike regular debate, nongermane amendments are not in order after cloture has been invoked. In other words, you cannot attach the Obamacare repeal after cloture has been invoked on the highway funding bill with Ex-Im attached to it. Major reforms to the healthcare industry are simply not that relevant to fixing bridges or giving out loans. Therefore, the Senator’s motion will be ruled out of order. The Senator will then appeal the ruling of the chair, which is decided by the Senate by a majority vote without debate.

The fact that this motion will be decided by majority vote without debate is the major commonality. Forcing a majority vote in the Senate is no small feat. However, the effect of this change would not be as significant as Reid’s nuclear option, reducing cloture to a majority on executive and judicial nominees (excluding the Supreme Court).

If Senator Lee attempts this motion, it would change germaneness rules while under cloture. The effect would simply open the door to more extraneous amendments while under cloture. Put differently, this would make the Senate under cloture more like the Senate when not under cloture. In regular debate (though not on appropriations) Senators can offer completely random amendments to bills. It’s arguably the second most important feature of the Senate outside the filibuster. For example, the lack of a germaneness rule is how we arrived at this scenario in the first place. Majority Leader McConnell is amending the “Hire More Heroes Act of 2015” (H.R. 22) and replacing it with the highway funding bill and adding the Export-Import Bank, neither of which are germane to hiring heroes. This would be impossible in the House (except under a rule from the Rules Committee).

It’s unlikely but we could see a major change to Senate operation. There are a variety of ways that the leaders or others in the chamber could thwart Senator Lee’s plans. Even if there was a change, it’s not on the same level as the nuclear option. Rather, it would make cloture debate more like regular debate. It would be significant but I wouldn’t call it nuclear.

The real underlying story is the method. Since the Senate went nuclear in November of 2013, senators have learned you can change nearly any Senate process if you can find a nondebatable motion. We’ll see that method employed again as conservatives try to kill the highway/Ex-Im bill.

(For process geeks: there is an excellent paper by Tony Madonna and Richard Beth on nondebatable motions and the nuclear option that was presented at the 2014 APSA Annual Conference.)

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Gun Control is Unlikely in this Congress: Here’s Why

It happened after the Aurora shooting.  It happened after Sandy Hook.  It happened after the shooting in Charleston.  And it’s happening now after the killing of five service members in Tennessee and two moviegoers in Louisiana.

I’m referring, of course, to calls for stricter gun laws.  According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans favor policies such as background checks, mental health restrictions, the creation of a federal gun database, and bans on assault-style weapons.

But despite calls for stricter gun laws, equally predictable is the fact that gun control isn’t likely to happen.  It’s something of a paradox: Congress repeatedly fails to pass gun control despite mass support.

Political scientists have a number of explanations for why stricter gun laws are so difficult to pass even though surveys show support for specific gun measures.

Institutional Reasons

At the macro level, there are big structural impediments to gun control in the current Congress.  One is obvious to even casual political observers while the other is not so obvious.

First, the obvious reason.  With Republicans controlling the House and Senate in the 114th Congress, stricter gun laws are unlikely to be enacted into law.  Consider the fact that no gun control measures were passed in the previous 113th Congress after the Sandy Hook shooting.  In the Democratic-controlled Senate, just four Republicans voted for the bipartisan amendment to require background checks on all commercial gun sales.  It was the closest gun control came in that session of Congress.  In the Republican-controlled House, while a gun measure did pass, the amendment actually weakened gun control.

A less obvious structural impediment to gun control is the Senate’s bias against large states.  Among the Constitution’s many compromises, the decision to give states equal representation in the Senate (irrespective of population) was among the most significant.

Why does this matter for gun control?  In establishing a “malapportioned” Senate, the Framers created an undemocratic body that gives disproportionate power to small, rural states.  While it’s a simple feature, it has enormous implications.  For example, research by political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer shows that small states receive more federal funding on a per capita basis than the large states.  In the context of gun control, senators from rural states (even Democratic ones) are less likely to support gun control.

Consider Montana.  With just over 1 million residents, Montana is about 1/40th the size of California.  And because Montana and California have just two senators, Montana’s rural population is over represented in the Senate by the inverse proportion.  But despite these differences, both states had two Democratic senators in the 113th Congress.  Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester cast just four liberal votes on gun measures in the 113th Congress (on seven gun amendments, for a possible total of fourteen votes).  California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer cast fourteen total liberal votes on gun measures.

So, even if Democrats controlled both chambers, there would still be a major structural impediment to stricter gun laws given the Senate’s bias in favor of rural interests.  And I didn’t even mention the fact that in the modern Senate, almost everything requires 60 votes!

Individual Reasons

At the micro level, passing gun control requires the support of individual lawmakers.  Understanding why lawmakers support (and oppose) gun control is a key piece of the puzzle.

Let’s begin with the most contentious topic: the NRA.  Does the NRA cause lawmakers to vote against gun control?  Some research says yes.  Studies by Lipford (here) and Langbein and Lotwis (here) show that campaign contributions from the NRA indeed affect how members of Congress vote on gun legislation even after controlling for a lawmaker’s party affiliation and ideology.

However, there’s an important caveat.  While the effect of the NRA is “significant” in these studies, the magnitude of this effect pales in comparison to the effects of ideology and party affiliation.  Simply put, the NRA is unlikely to be the deciding factor in whether gun control passes or fails.  Indeed, the NRA typically gives campaign contributions to conservative Republicans who already oppose gun control.  Of course, this caveat needs a caveat: this does not dismiss the NRA’s importance.  Rather, research suggests that the NRA’s greatest influences are electoral—helping to defeat lawmakers—or in the policymaking process—through it’s informational powers.

Another effect on how individual lawmakers vote is public opinion.  In general, researchers have established a clear connection between what citizens want and how elected leaders vote.  In the context of gun control, however, this general pattern raises major questions.  As noted earlier, there is something of a “paradox” between mass support for stricter gun laws and the fact that individual lawmakers are unlikely to pass gun control.

A popular explanation for these contradictory conclusions is that proponents of stricter gun laws, while more numerous, are simply less enthusiastic about the issue than opponents of gun control.  For example, the Pew Research Center survey cited earlier asked respondents whether they would vote for a candidate who disagreed with their position on gun control.  According to the results:

Among those who prioritize gun rights, 41% say they would not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on gun policy, even if they agreed with the candidate on most other issues. Fewer gun control supporters (31%) say gun policy is a make-or-break voting issue for them.

Simply put, from a lawmaker’s perspective, responsiveness to one’s constituents is not a function of what surveys reveal, but who is likely to write letters, give campaign donations, and vote (all of which are more likely among opponents of gun control according to the Pew Survey).  In addition to this enthusiasm gap, while Americans support specific gun control policies—like background checks—people are generally lukewarm to the issue of “gun control” (see here and here).

As a whole, yes, gun control has widespread support when you ask Americans on a survey about specific policies like background checks, mental health restrictions, and bans on assault weapons.  And it may seem like the public outcry in the wake of recent shootings in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana will compel Congress to act.  Unfortunately for proponents of stricter gun laws, however, there are major institutional and individual-level obstacles in the way.

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Simulating the Vote to Remove the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s Capitol Grounds

Do opponents of the Confederate flag have the votes to remove it from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds?

In an attempt at answering this question, Charleston’s newspaper, The Post & Courier, did the yeoman’s work of contacting all 170 state lawmakers and recorded their position on the flag (see here).  It’s an important bit of journalism, one that informs citizens and holds lawmakers accountable, drawing praise from a number of media outlets (see here and here).

As of Thursday at 5:00pm, the Senate looks certain to vote to take down the Confederate flag.  At the time of this post, 33 senators have expressed their support for removing the flag while only 2 stand in opposition.  With just 46 senators, this clears the requisite 2/3rds majority needed to secure passage.

However, the House is short of the necessary votes.  While it seems like a safe bet that the lower chamber will eventually cross the 2/3rds threshold, there are reasons to be cautious. Indeed, The Post & Courier’s data suffer from an inherent and unavoidable problem known as “non-response bias.”  In this case, the data almost certainly overstate support for bringing down the flag.  At the present time, nearly 90% of representatives support removing it from the Capitol grounds.  However, among those that haven’t responded, 100% (all of them) are Republicans (and many are from very conservative districts).

Simply put, if a large enough bloc of these “non-respondents” are secretly “no” votes, the effort to take down the Confederate flag could be in jeopardy.  Looking at the breakdown of these lawmakers, it’s apparent that some (most?) of the non-respondents hiding their opinion by not answering.  It’s a classic—yet frustrating—problem in survey research.

Fortunately, common statistical models can help us “fix” this problem and simulate the final vote total (but see some important caveats below).  In this analysis, The Post and Courier’s data serves as the dependent variable (using a lawmaker’s “yes,” “no,” and “missing” responses).  Independent variables include a lawmaker’s party affiliation as well as demographic data from the counties in their legislative district: (1) Obama’s vote share in 2012, (2) the percentage of Black residents, (3) the percentage with at least high school degree, and (4) the percentage 65+.  (County data is an imperfect proxy for a lawmaker’s constituents as districts span parts of a county.  However, it’s the only data available.  Add this to the list of caveats.)

Without including too many of the boring details, two models are estimated: one predicting why a lawmaker has yet to reveal his or her position (which helps “fix” the non-response bias) and a second predicting a lawmaker’s response.  What the model gives us is the predicted probability that the non-respondent will be a “yes” or a “no” vote.

In the figure below, I report the predictions (again, this is just for those who have yet to reveal their preference).  A blue dot signifies the predicted probability of voting for removing the Confederate flag while the red bar represents the prediction’s variability.  A larger red bar indicates the model is less certain about how a lawmaker will vote.

At the bottom of the figure, William “Bill” Whitmire (R) is the most likely non-respondent to vote against removing the flag (the model gives him a 2% chance).  In Oconee County—where his district is located—just 28% of voters voted for Obama in 2012.  Further, only 8% are Black and Oconee County has the second largest percentage of residents over the age of 65 in South Carolina.

In contrast, at the top of figure, Kirkman Finlay, III (R) is the most likely non-respondent to vote for removing the flag (the model gives him a 99% chance).  In Richland County—where his district is located—65% of residents voted for Obama in 2012.  Richland County also has a high percentage of Blacks and residents with at least a high school degree and a low percentage of those over the age of 65.

Most importantly, among the 37 hold outs in the state House, only 12 are predicted to vote against removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds.  In contrast, 25 are predicted to vote for removing the flag.  Note that this is based on assigning those <50% to the “no” column and those >50% to the “yes” column.  An obvious caveat: there is significant variability in the model; this is not the kind of thing that can be predicted with certainty.  For example, while James “Jay” Lucas is currently in the “yes” column (at 61%) and Ralph Kennedy, Jr. is in the “no” column (at 40%), it wouldn’t be surprising if either voted the opposite way.

Finally, if we include the declared “yes” and “no” respondents in the tabulation, we get a final vote in the House of 101-23.  Needless to say, this crosses the 2/3rds threshold.

A few more caveats.  First, my gut feeling is that the model is too bullish on the “yes” probabilities.  While I think the House indeed has the votes to remove the flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of the non-respondents predicted to be “yes” votes end up being “no” column when the actual vote happens.  Second, The Post & Courier’s dataset records support for removing the Confederate Flag in the abstract.  At the present time, there are three bills that have been introduced in the General Assembly.  Furthermore the committees receiving referral of the those bills can make their own statutory additions or subtractions.  In the end, the nature of the bill could change the predictions dramatically.

But while there are still reasons to be cautious, it seems like a good bet that the Confederate flag is coming down from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds.

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Left or Right? Who’s further from the middle?

Polarization is commonplace in American politicsBoth parties are moving away from the middle. The debate often boils down to who is polarizing the most/fastest.

New York Times opinion writer Peter Wehner sparked an interesting debate when he claimed, “in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right.” Jamelle Bouie’s excellent response at slate essentially illustrates that a lot of political science does not support that claim.

Both make good points about polarization in American politics. However, in many respects they are talking past one another. Wehner’s piece highlights the issues Democrats adopted in recent years.  And as he points out Democrats are undoubtedly more liberal on gay rights, drug legalization, and climate change, among other issues. Bouie, on the other hand, bases his argument on measures found congressional research. He highlights that recorded votes illustrate a much different picture than the one Wehner paints. Despite some excellent points there is an important dynamic between the issues parties champion and votes on the House and Senate floor that neither author addresses.

The argument for asymmetric polarization originated from recorded votes taken in Congress. Among the first to point this out were Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, who argued asymmetric polarization is obvious and primarily occurs on the right. Over the past four decades the average Republican’s vote score has unquestionably moved farther right than Democrats have pulled left.


Chart and data from voteview.com, the original source of congressional roll call scoring.

But this isn’t the whole story. To grasp asymmetric polarization you have to understand how roll call votes occur. And in this context we see a much muddier picture.

Roll call votes are both a very good measure of polarization and a clearly biased sample. They’re biased toward the decision-making of the representatives or senators that control the floor agenda. If a bill can reach the chamber floor, it can receive a recorded vote. If it can’t, then it doesn’t. And to over-simplify legislative process into a single sentence: party leaders dictate the agenda. Polarization found in roll call scores is in large part a function of party leaders’ policy priorities, political necessities, or electoral incentives. They can prioritize or deemphasize divisions between the parties depending on the interests and incentives they choose to pursue. As several scholars point out, today party leaders are far more interested in dividing the parties than they have been since the early 20th century (see Frances Lee’s Beyond Ideology for a great description of this).

The issues majority party leaders bring to a vote affects polarization and how far left or how far right they diverge. So the question we should be asking is: what issues are party leaders deciding to vote upon?

Laurel Harbridge recently tackled this question in her book, Is Bipartisanship Dead? She finds that since the mid-1970s party leaders having schedule more partisan votes. Despite the fact that bipartisan legislation is still introduced with impressive frequency, those bills receive roll call votes far less frequently. A statistic that really sticks out in her research, in 1974 over 70 percent of all roll call votes were on bills cosponsored with a significant amount of members from both parties. By 1995, just 27 percent of roll call votes had significant bipartisan support. Congressional leaders increasingly bypassed bills with bipartisan support, often for partisan alternatives on the same issue.

If you take this agenda effect with other studies emphasizing how procedural control and votes influence polarization (research done by Smith, Carson, Crespin, Madonna, Roberts, Theriault, and others), there is a body of evidence suggesting that the issues and bills party leaders prioritize are a significant culprit in congressional polarization. And further, Republicans are prioritizing partisan bills and votes with greater frequency than Democrats.

This isn’t wholly surprising or even illogical. Republican congressional leaders have much greater incentives to pursue partisan policies. The Republican base – with hugely safe, homogenous districts coupled with the money, organization, and impressive influence of right-wing Super PACs and groups with the power and willingness to primary moderates – is simply not mirrored to the same extent on the left.[1]

So while the 111th Congress passed a huge swath of Democratic priorities, on the whole Republicans have more incentives to vote and pass partisan bills. And as a result, vote scores illustrate Republicans have been more prone to move away from the middle than Democrats over the last few decades.

There are a lot of reasons both parties are moving away from the center. But despite the fact Democrats take more liberal stances than they have in the past, those stances receive less attention on the chamber floors relative to the more conservative positions in the Republican Party.

[1] In this vein an interesting test for Republicans will come in 2016. Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McConnell have prioritized several significant bipartisan bills in recent months. This tactic has illustrated a willingness to govern but runs counter to the tactics employed the last four years that brought Republicans electoral success.

Posted in Legislative Procedure, Polarization, Policy Agendas, Political Institutions, Political Parties | 1 Comment

Tedious Filibuster Talk: Was Rand Paul’s talk-a-thon a Filibuster?

Short answer: Yes. There are a couple reasons cited as to why it was not a filibuster. However, neither disqualifies Paul’s 10-hour talk-a-thon.

Paul’s filibuster came at a somewhat odd time. NSA spying was not on the Senate floor last night. The upper chamber was still considering the trade promotion authority (TPA) bill. Since TPA was on the floor and the Patriot Act was not, some argue that Paul was delaying action on the wrong bill and therefore,  his talk-a-thon does not qualify as a true filibuster.

Delaying action on unrelated bills does not disqualify a filibuster. This is a practice that happens virtually every day. Though it wasn’t the case last night, dilatory actions, like filibuster, are often used as leverage. Senators can place holds on bills and nominees, threaten to object to unanimous consent agreements, and use other dilatory actions to secure consideration, votes, or even passage of other unrelated measures.[1]  These actions, which are effective filibusters or threats to filibuster, are commonplace in the Senate and a part of what makes individual senators so powerful. So the fact Paul was attempting to extend debate on a different bill does not disqualify last night’s very long speech.

Another reason many are floating contends that Paul’s speech did not actually delay legislation. The vote to end debate on TPA was set up two days ago. In the meantime, the Senate was just killing time until the cloture vote was held today.

This also does not disqualify Paul’s filibuster. Setting up a cloture vote is necessary to overcome a filibuster. For the past 10 years the majority of cloture votes per Congress successfully cut off debate. Put differently, most filibusters fail. Majority leaders don’t tend to waste time on votes they can’t win. Meaning, on the majority of bills that are filibustered, the delay is a maximum of two days. And in most cases, that delay is built into the schedule, as the leader will make a motion to take up a bill and file a cloture petition simultaneously, effectively preempting the filibuster before debate has really begun. If a filibuster could only be called a filibuster if it delayed legislation beyond the 2-day cloture vote process, this would disqualify roughly 74% of the filibusters in the 113th Congress.

If further evidence is needed to prove that Paul’s filibuster was legitimate, today Majority Leader McConnell filed cloture on two measures to addressing the NSA surveillance programs. This wouldn’t be necessary if Paul was not filibustering the Patriot Act.

While these criticisms don’t necessarily disqualify Paul’s filibuster, they do highlight the hollow nature of the modern “talking” filibuster. The last four filibuster-talk-a-thons have doubled as publicity engagements. Today’s filibusters harkens back to a romanticized Senate tradition that simply no longer exists. The practice of physically extending debate through long-winded speeches died a long time ago when cloture became the preferred tool to end debate in the 1970s. As a result, nearly all of the recent talking filibusters occurred when the Senate was killing time until a vote on cloture was in order.

In this context it’s not surprising that the last four talking filibuster-ers are current presidential hopefuls. They use Congress’s most widely known process to grab a national platform. Yet, while today’s talking filibusters don’t match those of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, they nonetheless fit within the frame of extending debate.

[1] Senators have also used holds to secure agreements from the executive branch, ensure the administration responds to an inquiry, or to signal that a negotiation on something related or unrelated needs to take place before a bill or nominee will move forward.

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Political parties are often too convenient an explanation

Teagan Goddard asked the question, can politics be “unbundled” from political parties? In other words, if there is a market where we can unbundle phone and internet service, why isn’t there a market to unbundle politics from parties? Hans Noel wrote an excellent piece describing how the electoral and governing process inherently bundles politics for us. It is a process that simplifies our system but also, in Noel’s piece, ties politics to the parties.

Both pieces are excellent reads with some great points. But at what point do we risk overstating parties’ influence on politics? A common, underlying thread to both these pieces assumes that “unbundled politics” – politics that is distinguishable, or not driven by, party politics – do not or cannot exist in American politics.

This strand of thought often glosses over how unbundled American politics actually is. Politics is about coalitions, but it’s not always about party coalitions. They are, without question, the dominant political coalitions and polarization is the defining narrative of our time. However, we often use these reasons as intellectual crutches and in the process we unfortunately obscure an important and nuanced understanding of representation, particularly in Congress.

There is a good reason political parties are the focus of most observers’ explanations. Falling back on parties as the “bundles” of politics works most of the time. To borrow an example from Hans Noel’s post, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is either something you like or something you don’t. Today, those that dislike the ACA are nonetheless forced to live with it. And often one’s partisan preference determines their opinion about the ACA, or vice versa. On the big votes, like those to enact the bill into law, political parties perfectly explain the divide on expanded healthcare coverage.

But this black and white choice also oversimplifies the problem. What’s most troubling is it glosses over the geographic, demographic, and ideological differences that render a more rich and complex picture.

For example, millions of people dislike the ACA but also overwhelmingly support many of its provisions. On the other hand, several provisions are also unpopular on a bipartisan basis. Eighty-one Democrats, a full 42% of the House caucus, voted to block the individual mandate in 2011. A repeal of the medical device tax received 37 Democratic votes in the 113th Congress. Unsurprisingly, most members who voted against the ACA’s provisions represented more moderate districts.

Factors other than partisanship have divided and continue to divide members in Congress. The presence of two parties in Congress does not inevitably lead to partisan problems or issue breakdowns. Democrats frequently get the credit for civil rights legislation because they were in power when it passed. But Republicans supported civil rights legislation in the House and Senate in higher percentages than Democrats throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, an entire generation of Congress was defined by a majority party divided on major issues like civil rights, education policy, and energy regulation, just to name a few.

Today, despite better sorted partisan and ideological coalitions, we still observe these patterns. The majority party is divided on foreign trade, government spending policy, the deficit, government surveillance and privacy, the Export-Import Bank, immigration, prison reform, and the list goes on.

We may only have one president, one Congress, and two parties but that Congress and those parties are remarkably complex. The original FARRM bill vote in 2013 illustrated rural Democrats with farm heavy constituencies were willing to stomach more than $30 billion in cuts to SNAP, a major party priority. Congress is currently debating trade promotion authority (TPA) that, if enacted, would divide moderates in both parties from their less moderate co-partisans.

Votes that highlight demographic and ideological divisions within the parties are less common but nevertheless present. Today, it’s just harder for the ideological, geographic, and demographic outliers in each party to differentiate themselves. Leaders press for unity, not discord. As a result, outliers have a difficult time getting their time in the legislative sun. For example, it’s much harder for members like Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) to receive the green light on his amendment that almost perfectly divided both parties. It happens. It is just much less frequent.

In other words, there is ample evidence that politics is already unbundled. Senators Harry Reid, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin are all Democrats with high ratings from the NRA. Representatives Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (NJ), Robert Dold (IL), Greg Walden (OR), Richard L. Hanna (NY) are all Republicans who have taken pro-choice positions. On issues like banking regulation or energy policy, the list of elected officials breaking from their parties multiplies by at least three. They break from their parties for good reason. If they didn’t, they probably would not be in Congress.

America’s governing and electoral institutions have created strong incentives to toe the party line. The idea that “unbundled politics” do not or cannot exist glosses over the most interesting political and representational issues of our time. Today political parties explain a lot in the American political system. But at times its ubiquity is overstated. And unfortunately, this intellectual shortcut can undermine important examples that illustrate exactly how geographically, demographically, or ideologically diverse representation in Congress can be.

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Why is Congress working?

Many in the media are beginning to notice that Congress is, in fact, working again. It’s negotiating deals, passing significant compromises, voting on amendments, and taking on serious issues. As the 114th Congress was being sworn in I outlined a few reasons for optimism and potential areas of compromise. That said, the 114th Congress is even surpassing those expectations. But the bigger question is: why is it working?

It should be expected that full Republican control of the Congress would help. Divided congressional control devastated legislative output. Historically, it is a very unusual institutional situation. When it does occur however, it tends to seriously depress output. Now that both chambers are under single party control, they are unsurprisingly working better together.

Unified control of Congress is also a major reason the executive and legislative branches of government are working better together. The Senate majority under Harry Reid effectively acted as a presidential veto for the last four years. It blocked House bills to repealing or defunding Obamacare, rolling back provisions in Dodd-Frank, obstructed several bills affecting energy regulation, prevented interferences in EPA regulations and alterations to the CFPB, and more. Many, in fact most, of these bills passed the House with large bipartisan majorities. However, if these bills were opposed by the president, they were conspicuously missing from the Senate calendar.

Now that the House and Senate are working together rather than simply checking one another, Congress once again has a negotiating position with the executive. Negotiations have shifted from the leaders’ offices on opposite ends of the Capitol to the offices at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s a major shift. Obama must now address Republican priorities and vice versa. As I pointed out in January, we should expect more vetoes – and the president has already doubled his veto total in three months – but we should also expect more compromise.

Is this a new era of bipartisanship? Don’t bet on it. While the doc-fix legislation, human-trafficking deal, Iranian negotiations, a deal on trade promotion authority and other bipartisan news dominated the headlines, the House inconspicuously passed a repeal of the estate tax, mortgage regulation changes, and financial services bills with very partisan majorities. And don’t forget that the human-trafficking filibuster is due to a breakdown in bipartisan staff relations and trust in the Senate.

So yes, we should applaud the 114th Congress and its leaders for its progress. However, this should not have been entirely unexpected. It’s just a departure from a previously dismal situation in the 112th and 113th Congresses. And unfortunately, do not expect it to continue for the full term of this Congress. There are more deals to be made but they will likely become increasingly rare as the congressional parties gear up for 2016.

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