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August 1, 2014

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Where Congress did well in 2012

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The holidays are an occasion to step back from the bustle of daily life and reflect on the past year. It’s a time when we’re supposed to look for the good in everyone, even the least deserving. Which brings us to Congress, an institution that doesn’t elicit many warm feelings, no matter how much eggnog you’ve consumed.

Despite all the conflict and strife, there were some important bipartisan congressional accomplishments this year, which were overlooked precisely because they lacked drama.

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, both parties cooperated to pass a pipeline safety bill 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 such as the one in San Bruno frequently operated at the wrong pressure. 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 mandates that they 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 often are 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 drugs 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 like 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 their frequent occurrence 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 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 originates overseas has been a major obstacle because 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 in another country. The new law grants the Federal Trade Commission broad new 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 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.

Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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  1. It's amazing and astounding what Congress can do when it leaves partisan politics outside the chambers.

    CarmineD