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Congress’s 2019 looks startling in the rear-view mirror. Here are 4 key takeaways.

Expect the Nancy and Mitch show to keep delivering surprises.

- December 29, 2019

You could call this the year of the Nancy and Mitch show — that is, if Donald Trump’s nontraditional presidency hadn’t absorbed all the attention. At one end of the Capitol building this past January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats took control during a partial government shutdown. Trump refused to sign any budget unless it included $5.7 billion for a southern border wall — which a Democratic House and GOP Senate refused to give him. At year’s end, House Democrats voted to impeach the president.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Capitol, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate ignored House-passed measures on gun control, voting rights, immigration, drug pricing and other Democratic priorities, while confirming 100 conservative judges for lifetime seats on the federal bench, and promised to swiftly dismiss any impeachment charges.

But despite the year’s partisan bookends, Congress achieved quite a bit across party lines. It funded the parties’ domestic and defense priorities, abolished key Obamacare taxes, and created paid parental leave for federal workers. Meanwhile, Pelosi (Calif.) and House Democrats extracted labor and environmental concessions from the Trump administration for a North American trade agreement, despite GOP objections.

Here are four takeaways from this split-screen Congress.

1. A divided Congress delivered gains, not pain

Split party control — or having different parties control the two chambers of Congress — is comparatively unusual and has happened only a third of the time in the past 30 years. Split party control often results in stalemate, with neither chamber able to achieve its goals. Not this time. The parties struck a two-year deal that got rid of legal spending caps to significantly increase funding for domestic and defense programs. One thing that helped: the GOP stopped restricting spending. Under Barack Obama, Republicans insisted on spending cuts; under Trump, they’re happy to pump up the economy.

The deal gave Republicans more funding for the Pentagon, while Democrats gained billions of dollars more for health care, education and election security. The parties traded paid parental leave for federal workers for a down payment on the Space Force. Overall, it was a win-win for the parties, ignoring White House proposals for draconian cuts and dropping other demands from the far left and right.

Many argue that split control encourages both parties to make tough choices because voters would blame them both if they achieved nothing. But this Congress stuck to the easy stuff — and made little progress in addressing immigration, climate change and so on. Unified government — when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress — doesn’t fix everything, but neither does split control.

2. Pelosi kept her Democratic coalition together

Recent House majorities have been torn by internal divisions. During the Obama years, Republicans shut down the government twice after Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) supported his more conservative colleagues’ move to hold government hostage for policy demands.

But Pelosi‘s House Democrats acted all but unanimously when confronting Trump’s misconduct in withholding aid from Ukraine to push that government to announce investigations into Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival.

That’s because Pelosi worked carefully toward Democratic cohesion. She didn’t launch an impeachment inquiry until swing-district freshmen members declared their support in The Washington Post — and then narrowly drew its boundaries to keep them satisfied. And she carefully choreographed the details of the impeachment hearings and floor debate, according to New York Times reporting, including admonishing Democrats for applauding after the vote.

More broadly, Democratic divisions — between blue-district liberals and swing-district moderates — complicated Pelosi’s leadership all year. In managing these cleavages, the speaker tended to side with the moderates. As with past House speakers, one of her priorities is keeping Democrats in control of the House after the 2020 elections; that requires protecting members who won in pro-Trump districts. Still, to gain Democrats’ votes for the president’s renegotiated North American trade agreement, the speaker pulled the deal sharply to the left — securing support from labor unions and a broad swath of Democrats. We ate their lunch, Pelosi declared.

3. Presidential hardball scored some runs

Frustrated by Congress’s refusal to fully fund his promised border wall, Trump turned to the National Emergencies Act and declared an emergency at the border. Bipartisan House and Senate majorities voted against the emergency declaration, but the president vetoed the measure and went ahead to divert federal funds allocated elsewhere to building the wall.

Critics argued that the president undermined Congress’s power of the purse: Bipartisan majorities had already voted against funding the wall. The case has been in the courts since.

Also in the courts are disputes about the boundaries of congressional power. Trump has refused to allow the executive branch to respond to House subpoenas as it investigates the Ukraine scandal, Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the president’s financial records. Lower courts have largely sided with House Democrats, but the Supreme Court will have the final word this coming year.

4. Democrats play hardball, too

Both parties have bent congressional norms in recent years, beginning with Senate Democrats’ 2013 ban on filibusters of executive and most judicial nominees. Critics often consider Republicans to be more egregious violators of Senate norms — Exhibit A is when McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to consider Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, for nearly a year.

But Democrats are showing that they can play dirty, too. Pelosi surprised nearly everyone by announcing that the House would hold on to the articles of impeachment until McConnell sets trial rules that Senate Democrats agree are fair. Many thought McConnell had it coming after boasting that Republicans would coordinate with the White House and that he would not be an impartial juror.

Pelosi has driven a wedge between McConnell (who professes not to want a trial) and Trump (who craves acquittal). But withholding the articles could be counterproductive: 51 Republicans could agree to trial rules that Democrats deem unfair. Or the Senate could somehow proceed to trial without the articles or the House impeachment managers, who are essentially prosecutors. But there’s no sign that McConnell has the votes needed to ignore Democrats’ demands — leaving Pelosi holding the cards, for now.

Buckle up for 2020.