WASHINGTON • Congress spent 2015 passing long-term bills on issues — from the way Medicare pays doctors to long-term transportation spending — that had languished for years in partisan acrimony.
It approved education reform measures and closed out the year with a massive tax-and-spend package that got both Republican and Democratic votes, if sometimes begrudgingly. The roiling House of Representatives changed leadership from John Boehner to Paul Ryan amid a papal exhortation to just get along.
“We had a new speaker, we had the pope come,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. “This has been a pretty big year, and obviously we ended on two really big pieces of legislation.”
Even President Barack Obama, often at odds with the Republican-run Congress, paid a compliment.
“I do want to thank Congress for ending the year on a high note,” he said before heading off to Hawaii for vacation.
Many issues remain for 2016, however. Republicans still want to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, and they have been chipping away at some of its provisions, including delaying until 2020 the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-end health insurance plans. St. Louis-area Republicans lamented that they were unable to get more restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency. Deficit hawks complained that Congress broke the bank again with tax credit deals. Environmentalists said Congress’s lifting of the oil-export ban countered a global climate agreement signed in Paris in early December.
Beneath the mega-bills and overarching differences, members of the region’s congressional delegation pushed through laws or launched ones that will have an effect on the region or spark debate in 2016:
Obama signed into law a criminal sex trafficking package, including a controversial provision on online advertising of sex primarily pushed by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Citing the First Amendment, Backpage.com, the largest host of such advertising, sued Attorney General Loretta Lynch to stop her from enforcing it.
After lobbying by several members of the local delegation, the defense budget for 2016 includes $1 billion for five Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters and seven EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes built by Boeing in St. Louis.
Medical research funding
Congress raised the outlay for the National Institutes of Health by more than 6 percent, which will boost research at universities such as Washington University. Prime sponsor of the increase was Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees NIH.
Regulatory permit reform
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, passed legislation streamlining environmental and other permitting regulations for major construction projects, which pro-business groups say will cut years and costs out of road and other big-ticket building.
The Hire More Heroes Act, sponsored by Blunt in the Senate and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, in the House, became law. It exempts employers from certain mandates of the Affordable Care Act if they hire veterans.
Chemical regulation reform
The House passed the Toxic Substance Control Act, sponsored by Shimkus, which strengthens oversight of American-made chemicals and the products that contain them. A Senate version co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also passed. Shimkus, who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing chemicals, predicted a final compromise would pass in 2016.
Export-import bank renewal
Congress renewed the expired charter of the Export-Import Bank, which helps exporters get credit. It had had unanimous bipartisan, local support, from conservative Republicans such as freshman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, to veteran liberal Democrat Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. Deficit hawks attacked it as corporate welfare.
Rental car safety
A bill sponsored by McCaskill and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. prohibiting rental car companies from renting cars under recall notices became law.
West Lake Landfill
Clay, Wagner, Blunt and McCaskill introduced legislation that would transfer oversight of the controversial site from the Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which handles the cleanup of other nuclear waste sites around St. Louis.
McCaskill and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, opened a bipartisan Senate investigation of pharmaceutical drug pricing. McCaskill is also pushing the Pentagon for information on World War II veterans who may have been exposed to mustard gas experiments. Wagner and Kirk urged the Justice Department to investigate and “dismantle” the Backpage.com website.
Housing, finance provisions to watch for
Three major provisions pushed by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, passed the House Financial Services Committee and could come before the full House in 2016. One is the first major overhaul of federal housing programs in years. Another would restrict the government’s “Operation Choke Point,” which the Department of Justice says protects banks from shady businesses, but Republicans say is an ideological tool allowing Obama to go after industries he doesn’t like. A third would make changes in how financial institutions treat risk.