What Congress got done in 2015

Congress and the Washington Legislature have taken their lumps on these pages during the past year. Often, it’s been with ample cause. But while both preferred to use deadlines as a cudgel against the other party rather than a motivator, each body did get some work done in 2015.

As we close out the year, here’s a brief look at the accomplishments, backed by Herald Editorial Board and noting where they occasionally fell short; we’ll call them “yeah-buts.” We’ll start with Congress today and continue with the Legislature on Thursday.

It wasn’t without last-minute theatrics, but Congress did pass $1.14 trillion in spending and $680 billion in tax cuts before time expired, avoiding a federal government shutdown. Included in the deal was a renewal of the state sales tax deduction for Washington state residents and some relief from the spending caps on domestic and defense spending that sequestration had imposed. The yeah-but: While some of the more inappropriate riders were eliminated, others made it through on the budget’s coat-tails, including an end to the ban on oil exports that could result in even more shipments of oil by rail through the state.

After years of stop-gap measures, Congress passed a transportation spending package, $305 billion for five years that will fund sorely needed work on the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems. The yeah-but: It relies on gimmicks, such as selling oil from the federal petroleum reserve — potentially at bottom-of-the-barrel prices — to fund the work rather than owning up to the need for an increase in the federal gas tax.

The Export-Import Bank, which guarantees loans that foreign-based companies use to buy American-made exports and facilitates trade important to the Washington state economy, was reauthorized through 2019 as part of the transportation bill. The yeah-but: The bank was shuttered for several months when Congress didn’t act quickly enough, losing out on trade opportunities and prompting a few companies to move jobs overseas where they could find the financing.

While Congress rightfully retains a final up-or-down decision in 2016 on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim nations, it did give President Barack Obama the “fast-track” authority he sought to come to a final agreement with the other countries. As part of the package, Congress also passed a worker-training bill that secured enough Democratic votes for passage.

Recognizing that little had come of the National Security Agency’s metadata phone records collection program under the Patriot Act, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which now requires the NSA to obtain a court order to collect data on specific phone numbers, rather than collecting data from the phone numbers of all Americans.

Meeting little of the typical opposition, legislation that bans microbeads, those tiny plastic pellets in toothpaste, soaps and other grooming products, easily passed in Congress. The beads, which act like sponges for toxic chemicals, are ingested by sea life, passing the toxins up the food chain. The yeah-but: Just as damaging and unregulated are other plastics that end up in waterways, such as nylon fishing nets, plastic bottles and even-tinier microfibers that slough off from synthetic fabrics in the laundry.

Congress left behind the No Child Left Behind Act with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan deal initially negotiated by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee. The act should alleviate some of the anxiety over standardized testing, allowing states and school districts more authority regarding curriculum and how to use test results in school and teacher evaluations.

Finally, as it did with the Import-Export Bank, Congress initially missed a deadline to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but as part of the budget deal did renew the program, which uses royalty payments from offshore oil and gas leases to fund public land acquisition for parks and public lands and provide grants for state parks and recreation programs. The yeah-but: Supporters of the 50-year-old program, launched by Everett’s Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, had hoped to make the reauthorization permanent, but the program will again have to seek funding in three years.

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