Maybe the lopsided votes clearing what’s colloquially dubbed “the highway bill” didn’t put a sufficient drumroll under the potentially historic nature of the occasion.
The new law does more than set surface transportation policies and spending levels for five years, the first time since 2009 that road and mass transit improvements have enjoyed an extended lease on life.
The measure, passed overwhelmingly last week and signed into law Friday, has also resurrected the Export-Import Bank — and credit for that goes to the first success of a discharge petition in almost 14 years. That cumbersome procedure is in almost all cases only theoretically available to a majority of House members when their leadership is ignoring them.
That Democrats are eager to claim pride of authorship in this outcome is pretty predictable: They don’t get many opportunities these days to boast about altering federal policy, especially when doing so required overcoming so much overt resistance from Republicans’ top brass.
A little more surprising is how many across the aisle are clamoring just as hard for the credit. The Republicans who fought to reopen the Ex-Im Bank mainly hail from the party’s more traditional Chamber of Commerce wing.
They don’t take on such conflicts all that often to begin with. And they haven’t been inclined to orchestrate victory laps after outmaneuvering more powerful colleagues on the Hill and such well-moneyed conservative interests as the Heritage Foundation and the Koch brothers.
But this time was different for several reasons, lawmakers who orchestrated the insurrection say.
Having done the bidding not only of major exporters such as Boeing and GE, but also small-time enterprises close to home but with overseas markets, there was no point in remaining shy and potentially forgoing buckets of 2016 campaign cash from all the grateful businesses.
(Since the New Deal, the bank has helped American businesses sell their goods and services abroad by providing loans and financing guarantees to overseas customers. But small-government GOP conservatives, who view that as a prime example of corporate welfare, engineered a legislative impasse that stopped the bank from engaging in new business at the end of June, when its authorization expired.)
Now the corporate conservatives have reason to boast that they, not their more-inclined-to-tea-party colleagues, are the majority of the majority. Their incontrovertible evidence: On the key vote, 52 percent of House Republicans (127 of them) voted at the end of October to revive the Ex-Im Bank for the next four years.
Combined with the votes of almost every Democrat, the bill passed by a margin bigger than three-to-one — one of the year’s first big bipartisan shows of support for substantive legislation that had languished on the grounds it was too divisive inside the GOP.
The Ex-Im Bank’s promoters say ancillary benefits of their crusade include demonstrating to the electorate a revived GOP willingness to put governing ahead of ideological purity, and cracking the hardened partisan crust that has entombed so many policy proposals in the House. Since the breakthrough on reviving the bank have come deals to ease the spending caps, update federal K-12 education policy and boost public works spending.
“I’m not sure I can prove the connection, but if you think about it, we’ve been having a pretty bipartisan few weeks of legislating around here ever since our thing went down,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican at the center of the discharge petition drive.
“We also brought some order out of chaos, and that may be the biggest thing to happen to our caucus this year,” he added, describing the Ex-Im victory as a galvanizing force after this fall’s tumultuous House leadership turnover.
That power vacuum is actually what created the big opening for Kinzinger and his ilk. While publicly opposing a speaker’s tactics, voting opposite his dictates and even objecting to his re-election have become survivable political sins for majority members in the modern House, trying to usurp his control over the legislative agenda has remained out of bounds.
(The last time a discharge petition forced a vote on legislation that ultimately became a law, the 2002 campaign finance overhaul, only 19 majority Republicans signed the document in defiance of the leadership’s wishes.)
But once John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced he was leaving, and before Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., had been installed in his place, the rebels decided they had an opening to strike with impunity, and after two weeks of rounding up support in secret, they had found 41 Republicans to sign their petition — and another 86 to back them on the floor. (The outcome was also influenced by the fact that Boehner supported the Ex-Im Bank but had been deferring to the ardent opposition of his House Financial Services chairman, Jeb Hensarling of Texas.)
The fact that an enormous House majority voted for the bill, however, was not a guarantee reauthorization was imminent, and for five more weeks the bank’s fate remained in limbo. Only a week ago did its future brighten publicly, when negotiators announced they’d reached a deal on the transportation bill that included language taking the bank out of mothballs.
As a parliamentary matter, this wasn’t all that surprising. Because an Ex-Im rider was in the highway bill the Senate passed in July, it was fair game for the conferees to discard or keep it in the final bill. But as a practical matter, a decision on such a contentious matter normally falls to the speaker.
And Ryan could have sold a decision either way as consistent with his highly touted commitment to restore “regular order” to the House: Dropping the language would have reflected his desire to return more power to the committee chairmen (not to mention reflecting the new speaker’s own opposition to the bank.) Allowing the wishes of 313 members to catch a ride on the sure-to-pass highway bill, however, was in line with the speaker’s vow to do more to “let the House work its will.”
If that’s what Ryan has foremost in his mind when it comes to regular order, the seldom-updated history of discharge petitions won’t have to be altered again anytime soon.