Policy

In 2012, Some Good Things From Our Bad Congress


Okay, so maybe Congress accomplished a few things this year.

Photograph by Juanmonino/Getty Images

Okay, so maybe Congress accomplished a few things this year.

The holidays are an occasion to step back from the bustle of daily life and reflect on the year just passed. It’s a time when we’re supposed to look for the good in everyone, even the least deserving. Any roster of “least deserving” is sure to feature the U.S. Congress. With an approval rating in the single digits and just days to go before it sends us hurtling over the fiscal cliff, Congress doesn’t elicit many warm feelings, no matter how much eggnog you’ve consumed.

But one truism of Washington journalism is that conflict and strife get all the attention, while bipartisan accomplishments—even important ones—are routinely ignored or overlooked, precisely because they lack drama. The contentious presidential election made these periodic bits of good news even less likely to be noticed.

So in the spirit of the season, here are a few of them.

Two years ago, a pipeline explosion ripped through a suburban neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people, part of a wave of oil and gas spills across the country. In January, President Obama signed a pipeline safety bill both parties cooperated to pass that addresses the most egregious shortcomings.

Shockingly, the San Bruno disaster took so long to contain because nobody could manage to shut down the pipeline. The new law requires remote shut-off valves. Explosions were common because pipelines like the one in San Bruno frequently operated at the wrong pressure. So pipelines will be tested to ensure they’re within a maximum operating pressure established under the law. A massive 2010 oil spill poisoned the Kalamazoo River because the oil company didn’t detect the leak. Leak-detection systems are now mandatory. And after an oil pipeline ruptured in the Yellowstone River because it wasn’t buried deep enough, the new law ensures that they’ll no longer run so close to the surface.

Over the summer, while most health-care news focused on the Supreme Court’s controversial Obamacare decision, Congress quietly passed a series of measures to create new cancer treatments and lower drug prices. Children with cancer have limited treatment options because adult drugs are often too powerful, and drugmakers don’t see profit potential in oncological drugs for children; the Food and Drug Administration has approved just one childhood cancer drug in the past 20 years, compared with 50 for adults. The Creating Hope Act, which became law in July, addresses this problem by allowing companies to expedite the regulatory review process of more profitable drugs if they also develop treatments for pediatric cancers and other rare diseases. There’s good reason to think that approach will work. The Orphan Drug Act, a 1983 law built on similar regulatory and marketing incentives, has led to treatments for hundreds of rare diseases, such as Tourette’s Syndrome.

Drug shortages are another chronic problem. According to the FDA, they have tripled since 2005 and currently exist for more than 100 drugs. Most shortages are of generic anesthetics and cancer-fighting drugs, and one reason for the frequent shortages is that the FDA lacks the manpower to review new drugs and inspect the factories that produce them. In July, both parties, backed by the pharmaceutical industry, agreed to a new Generic Drug User Fee Act that will provide funding to speed up the approval process and that should reduce the number of shortages. And because 80 percent of drugs are generics and the new law will bring more of them onto the market, drug prices should fall.

In the fall, Congress passed the U.S. Safe Web Act, which gives law enforcement officials powerful new tools to crack down on Internet fraud and spammers. The fact that most online fraud and spam originate overseas has been a major obstacle, since U.S. law largely forbids sharing information with foreign law-enforcement agencies. A subpoena that identified the bad guys wasn’t much use if they were located in another country. The new law grants the Federal Trade Commission broad authority to share intelligence with foreign law-enforcement officials.

On a bipartisan basis, Congress also improved child-safety seats; made it harder to import defective auto parts from overseas; imposed strong new penalties for odometer fraud (a big problem after Hurricane Katrina); and created new whistleblower protections.

None of this is likely to change people’s opinion of Congress—and certainly not if partisan gridlock leads to fiscal-cliff chaos. But these examples might provide some basis for believing that all hope is not lost. After all, even Scrooge required the ministrations of a team of high-powered lobbyists—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—before he was persuaded to change his ways.

Green_190
Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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