Congress Takes a Break Leaving Critical Legislation on Hold for September

Aug 15, 2012

Lawmakers began a five-week recess at the beginning of August, scheduling only 13 more working days before the Nov. 6 election. The long break is hardly a reward for a string of significant accomplishments. When they return on Sept. 10, members of Congress will face a backlog of unfinished business.

By the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, lawmakers must renew farm programs and nutritional assistance for low-income families, provide aid to drought-stricken ranchers, help the Postal Service balance its obligations to retirees and pass another stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government running through March.

Congress also left questions unanswered about cybersecurity measures, domestic violence protections and the fate of a bundle of tax increases and spending cuts set to begin on Jan. 1. All of this is part of an ongoing trend in which lawmakers put off making important decisions, repeatedly forcing themselves to cast critical votes in a rush at the eleventh hour.

The 112th Congress’s ability to pass legislation has proven to be as underwhelming as their approval rating, which hovers consistently between the lower and upper teens. Congress has earned its reputation as a do-nothing body. In the year to date, only 151 bills have been passed, 60 of which simply rename post office branches. [1] A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 79 percent of Americans disapprove of the job lawmakers are doing. [2]

Rather than undertaking the work necessary to get important legislation approved, members of both the House and Senate have focused on laying low while occasionally making symbolic gestures for use on the campaign trail. It is in this spirit that the House has managed to find the time to take 33 votes on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act but none on a farm bill.

Passing legislation that used to routinely get bipartisan support has become a struggle. And when things do get done, the results are often short-term, setting up inevitable future battles over the same issue.

Claremont McKenna College political science professor John Pitney says the lack of action is a natural result of increased partisan conflict. “Actually getting legislation to the president’s desk isn’t as high a priority as making a symbolic point,” Pitney said. “This is the consequence of split party control of Congress at a time when the parties are highly polarized.” [1]

Leaving legislation to the last minute often results in simply extending existing policies with no real attempt to address long-term problems. Recent examples of this include a two-year highway bill extension and renewals of current student loan interest and payroll tax rates.

“That’s just sort of continuing the status quo,” said Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen about the recent actions. “But in terms of tackling big issues, this Congress has been out of commission.”

“They think compromise is a dirty word when compromise is necessary to get things done in the era of divided government,” Van Hollen said. [3]

In their shortened pre-election session, Congress now faces some must-do items. Among them are providing relief to farmers and low-income households through the renewal of a farm bill. The current drought affecting over half of the nation’s counties has placed a spotlight on Congressional inaction on farm policy. The current farm bill expires on Sept. 30, but the provision providing disaster relief for specialty crop farmers and ranchers expired last year.

Much of the cost of the farm bill comes from funds allocated for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. These bills have traditionally combined aid to low-income families with subsidies to farmers in order to gain bipartisan support. But this year no such agreement can be reached. [4]

The Senate has passed their version of the legislation, while the House attempt has just made it out of committee. Both bills cut direct subsidies to farmers and food assistance and increase aid for crop insurance. The Senate would reduce deficit spending by $23 billion over 10 years, cutting $4.5 from SNAP. The House version reduces spending by $35 billion, with $16.5 billion coming from nutritional assistance. [5]

The House did pass a bill that would provide $383 million in payments to ranchers and farmers for drought relief just hours before leaving for recess. [6] It is unclear what action the Senate will take on the measure when they return. President Obama announced a $170 million federal aid package for ranchers while campaigning in Iowa this week. [7]

During a holiday-riddled September, Congress must also tackle the budget. The threat of a government shutdown again looms if continuing appropriations are not passed before current funding expires on Sept. 30.

Over the past two years, the budget has been an excuse for brinkmanship and a means for scoring political points. Congress has not passed an actual budget resolution for three years. Lawmakers have, in fact, only managed to pass a budget resolution in five of the last 12 years and have not passed an approved budget by Oct. 1 since 1997. [8]

In the 1970s, Congress developed a way to meet the country’s need for a budget resolution and continuing appropriations, which worked for the better part of three decades. It goes something like this.

Around the first week of February, the president submits his budget. Congressional committees immediately begin working on their competing plans and are ready to report to the House and Senate Budget Committees by April 15. Over the next one to two months, the plans are reconciled, with the result being a budget resolution. All of this occurs by mid-summer, giving Congress plenty of time to pass appropriations bills in line with the budget resolution by the beginning of the fiscal year. [9]

An actual, reconciled budget resolution cannot be filibustered. Once a budget is passed, appropriations bills also cannot be filibustered so long as they fall within the spending parameters outlined in the budget resolution. [9]

However, Congress no longer operates that way. Instead, lawmakers pass a series of stopgap measures, the most recent of which expires in September. Congressional leaders and President Obama are reported to have reached a deal that will keep spending at the levels set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 through March, but the agreement still has to survive a vote in both houses. [10]

Some Tea Party backed Republicans in the House have threatened not to support any budget agreement. They want to see even steeper cuts and object to funding for provisions of the Affordable Care Act. However, there seems to be a tacit agreement among most Republicans that another round of brinksmanship right before an election would be bad for Mitt Romney’s presidential prospects.

Another time-critical piece of business is help for the U.S. Postal Service. In 2010, the agency projected a loss of $238 billion over 10 years. Losses for the second quarter of this year alone total $5.2 billion. [11]

On Aug.1, the Post Office defaulted on a $5.5 billion payment to its pension fund. Unless something is done, it will default on a second $5.6 payment due on Sept. 30.

The Postal Service faces the unique challenge of being unable to act without approval from Congress. Post Office officials have been asking lawmakers to allow them to implement cost-saving measures, like closing branches and eliminating Saturday delivery, as they face mounting debt. But Congress has not acted. Some accuse Congress of placing undue regulatory burdens on the Post Office, bowing to pressure from lobbyists representing businesses that have long wished to profit off the delivery of mail. [12]

The function of actual mail delivery takes no taxpayer money. Where taxpayer dollars do become involved is the funding of retiree pensions. The Post Office is the nation’s second largest employer, but unlike other businesses, Congress mandates its pension payments.

According to the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, the Post Office must prefund retiree benefits. Pensions must be funded for 75 years into the future. Prior to the 2006 act, benefit accounts were funded on a pay-as-you-go basis. Prefunding of benefits accounts for $20 billion of the $23.5 billion in losses the Postal Service has experienced over the last five years. [13]

The Senate passed the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012 in April to address some of these issues. The bill would provide money to keep open some branches slated for closure and would phase out Saturday delivery over the next two years. The House has not yet reached an agreement. [14]

Two bills that are not time critical but still important involve cybersecurity and domestic violence protections. Senate Republicans blocked the passage of a cybersecurity bill before the recess. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D – W.Va.) who sponsored the bill is pushing President Obama to sign it into law as an executive order.

“We must act to address our cyber vulnerabilities as soon as possible, and many components of the Cybersecurity Act are amenable to implementation via executive order, normal regulatory processes or other executive action under the authorities of the Homeland Security Act,” Rockefeller said in a letter to the president. [15]

Rockefeller’s Cypersecurity Act attempted to create a series of voluntary government standards that would apply to private companies overseeing the operation of critical infrastructure, like dams and power grids. Although the guidelines would not be mandatory, the government would be able to provide incentives for compliance. Republicans objected to the government having a role in creating the standards at all.

The domestic violence bill, or Violence Against Women Act, was originally passed in 1994 and has been consistently renewed ever since. The Senate did pass a bill extending domestic violence protections earlier in the year amid the brouhaha over Georgetown Student Sandra Fluke’s testimony on birth control access and accusations of a Republican war on women. After much attention, however, the bill died there.

The Senate bill would expand the Violence Against Women Act’s protections to cover lesbian women, illegal immigrants and Native Americans. Republicans find these expansions in protection unacceptable, and the House has not yet passed any version of a domestic violence bill. [16]

The remaining item of business arguably receiving the most media attention – but will almost certainly not be addressed before the election – is that of the so-called fiscal cliff. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake coined the term fiscal cliff in testimony before Congress, and members of the press have run with it. The fiscal cliff refers to the package of tax increases and spending cuts that will go into effect automatically on Jan. 1, barring Congressional action.

Three main tax measures need to be addressed. One is the expiration of the supposedly temporary Bush and Obama tax cuts. Congressional Democrats and President Obama support keeping the cuts in place for the first $250,000 of income, while Republicans insist on extending all of them. The Senate passed an extension of the cuts for the first $250,000 of taxable income, but House Republicans will not agree unless taxes are also kept lower for wealthy earners.

A second is the payroll tax holiday, the two percent reduction in Social Security taxes passed as a part of President Obama’s stimulus package. Without action, payroll taxes will revert to pre-stimulus rates. The third is the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) fix. Every year, rather than addressing the tax code, Congress passes a patch that keeps the AMT from affecting middle class households. Lawmakers passed a patch for 2011 but have yet to do so for 2012.

The automatic spending cuts are a result of sequestration, which was agreed upon in order to solve the debt ceiling crisis in 2011. [17] Congress believed that if they took a smaller number of divided legislators and placed them on a committee tasked with creating a budget agreement, this would solve the gridlock. However, with no agreement reached, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, with half coming from defense and half from domestic programs, will begin taking affect on Jan. 1.

There is little argument that if all of the scheduled tax increases and budget cuts go into effect, the resulting decrease in deficit spending would push the country back into a slight recession in 2013. [18] However, there is disagreement over whether this constitutes an actual cliff. According to author and budget expert Stan Collender, the country is facing more of a “gradual slope.”

“If Congress and the President didn’t get things done by December 31, when we supposedly hit the ‘cliff,’ they’d still have three or four weeks before any of this would really start to kick in and have a real impact. In other words, there’s plenty of time to do things,” Collender said. “We don’t have to rush into a bad decision by December 31 to avoid what sounds like a tragedy on its way.” [19]

The lesson behind the hyperbole is that Congress does not have to push through potentially damaging legislation in a lame-duck session. Lawmakers can wait until January to address the issues item by item, looking to avoid recession and spur growth in the short term while reducing deficits in the long term. But if recent history is to serve as a guide, legislators will likely bow to pressure to pass something that simply extends current policy, leaving the real issues to be solved by some future Congress.

However Congress decides to act on its to-do list, decisions are likely to be made at the last minute.

“The one thing they keep agreeing on is to postpone big decisions,” said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. “It’s easy for them to agree on that.” [20]