For a day, Congress gets its act together

So they can get something done, after all.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the constitutionality of the hotly contested health care bill, Congress put aside its differences for a day and passed a bill that includes two measures on which they had earlier deadlocked: transportation funding for the next two-plus years and an extension of a student loan subsidy.

The $127 billion transportation legislation and continued, $6.7 billion subsidy of student loans for another year — along with a flood insurance package — passed the House 373-52 and the Senate by a margin of 74-19. Republicans — mostly tea party no-compromisers — cast all the “no” votes. Nonetheless, it has been a while since one has witnessed pluralities that large, with both sides giving a little to be done with these issues in an election year and get out of town.

Specifically, the GOP backed off its insistence on construction of the Keystone pipeline over the White House’s objections in the transportation bill. Senate Democrats sliced $1.4 billion for land and water conservation. Both sides irritated constituencies — spending hawks on the right, environmentalists on the left — in doing so.

Rarely does a piece of legislation make everyone happy, but that’s how things get done in Washington and in life, where only the unwise allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This legislation was not ideal. Disparate issues were bundled under the same bill umbrella at the 11th hour, a practice this page would like to see end. The details were not posted for public review 72 hours in advance, though the bill’s excessive length — another grievance — made it unlikely many Americans would have read it anyway. There still is a long way to go before anyone can say we have good government in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, these are bandaids rather than true remedies or reforms, with big challenges down the road. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax tapped to fund much of the transportation bill is a dying revenue stream, and a replacement will have to be found for infrastructure investments; it’s not prudent to put those off. Student loans cannot be subsidized at this 3.4 percent interest rate forever; at some point our state and national politicians have to wrestle with the bigger issue, which is the soaring cost of college threatening to put higher education out of reach for many Americans.

That said, these measures were no-brainers for passage. The transportation bill means jobs — some 3 million created or retained — in a nation where unemployment still hovers around 9 percent. As to the student loan situation, who wants to get stuck with the anti-student, anti-education— anti-young voter — label in an election year?

It’s important to note as well that these measures appear to be paid for, aligned with revenue streams, though in the transportation bill’s case about $19 billion had to be reprioritized from Treasury.

This will be about it from the 112th Congress, with but 29 days remaining on the legislative calendar between now and the election. Not everything got taken care of — significant changes to some farm programs and an overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service are still sitting there — but it will have to do.

It does go to show that Republicans and Democrats can work together when they want to, when they’re up against a deadline — student loan rates would have doubled starting this week — or when they have something more pressing, like campaigning, vying for their time. It would be a service to the nation if Americans could see more of this kind of cooperative action coming out of Congress, before things reach a crisis stage.

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