When voters pulled the lever for Republicans in 2014, they probably didn't have high expectations for the Congress they were creating. With two years left in President Obama's term, divided government and further gridlock seemed the best possible outcome.

Yet the 114th Congress has been surprisingly productive — and more importantly, it holds forth great promise on such major issues as free trade, criminal justice reform and tax reform. And although not all of the developments are or will be positive, none of the problems stem from the kind of institutional dysfunction that plagued the previous Senate, especially.

The classic but misleading metric for a Congress is the number of laws it enacts. This Congress has been better on that score than its immediate predecessors so far. But as Congress leaves for its August recess, it is wiser to measure its value based on precisely what it has accomplished, and what aspirations lawmakers can realistically harbor based on the tone of the place today.

For example, Congress took a huge step toward opening up America's trade footprint when it approved Trade Promotion Authority earlier this summer and extended a long-running African trade agreement. Members fully expect to vote on at least one major trade deal before President Obama leaves office.

Before that, the House and Senate approved a bicameral budget for 2016. This might not seem like much, but it marks the first time Congress has actually fulfilled its budget responsibilities since Obama took office. Congress also approved the Keystone Pipeline (Obama vetoed that one), and passed a so-called "doc-fix," which had been kicked down the road for years. It also passed a bill helping the victims of human trafficking.

Looking forward, there's no question that this Congress has a considerably less toxic atmosphere than the last one. Instead of contemplating a government shutdown or a default, lawmakers are talking about what they might be able to pass.

The major difference is that the Senate's new leadership has chosen a decidedly less autocratic style. The former Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., will be remembered best for blocking amendment votes. He essentially offered the minority only two choices — accept his demands or else stop action on bills altogether. This not only blocked individual senators' contributions to the process (including Democrats who might have benefited from the opportunity to contribute), but it also became a huge source of tension between the parties. Reid's decision to trample the minority's rights by invoking the so-called "nuclear option" did not help matters, either.

Now that senators are free to propose amendments, Democratic and Republican senators alike have more of a buy-in to the legislative process. In just the first major debate — over the Keystone pipeline — there were more amendment votes than there had been in the entire preceding year.

In short, this has not been and probably will not be a Congress of major ideological change. Obamacare will not be repealed while Obama is in office, and he also won't get any new tax increases or stimulus packages. But some major problems could be solved. And Obama will be forced to cast some uncomfortable vetoes and work with the other side as appropriations season begins.

That would make this Congress already an improvement over the last one.