By David HawkingsPosted at 8 p.m. on Jan. 5
Congress is reopening for business this week, to begin what President Barack Obama says “needs to be a year of action.”
When the president offered that call to arms for 2014, just as the Capitol lights were being dimmed for the holidays, the eye-rolling sentiment from so many lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists amounted to: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that.”
The collective assessment is there’s no way that 2013, the least legislatively productive first year of an administration in six decades, is going to be followed by a more productive spurt from a divided Congress in an election year.
However, the next 10 weeks may hold some genuine prospects for rebutting the conventional wisdom, if only temporarily.
A trio of hallmark accomplishments in the second session of the 113th Congress have strong potential to get done before St. Patrick’s Day. Assuming the Republicans keep to their current course — confining their focus to avoid new, self-inflicted political wounds — lawmakers will be able to extend their current truce in the budget wars not only on the spending front but on borrowing as well. A food and farm bill that gives both sides a claim to victory is well within reach.
And, without traveling too far into optimistic fantasy-land, it’s possible to envision that bipartisan success on that trifecta by March would spawn interest in reaching for some additional deals in the spring. An immigration overhaul may still be the longest of viable long shots, but there’s some hopeful early talk about carefully calibrating compromise on a variety of second-tier issues left hanging at the end of 2013 — from sentencing disparities to water projects, patent lawsuits to online sales taxes, energy efficiency standards to physician reimbursement rates.
All those remain a ways off, but here’s a sketch of why each of the wintertime Big Three are likely to get done.
Appropriations. It sure sounds daunting, producing a single measure in five weeks that apportions all $1 trillion in discretionary spending for the rest of this fiscal year. But, in the current context, the omnibus spending package that’s supposed to be unveiled this week is more the legislative equivalent of a two-foot putt on the 18th hole, with the winner’s purse on the line. Yes, it’s possible to crack under the pressure and mess it up, but true professionals are supposed to approach the ball with confidence and make sinking the shot look easy.
Bipartisan majorities embraced last month’s budget accord in no small measure because it promised to end talk about government shutdowns until after the midterm elections. But this spending bill needs to get signed to make that promise a reality. Even a little flirting with the Jan. 15 deadline will prompt a revival of the cable TV countdown clock graphics, which in turn would threaten to drive congressional approval ratings back into the single digits from which they’ve just emerged. (And that was thanks entirely to the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder phenomenon of the two-week holiday break.)
Although the Republicans have more to lose — because they have been blamed most for the last shutdown — neither party can afford to start the year looking like it might fail a test it has essentially told the public it’s already passed. So expectations are high that the bill will be cleared with only minimal fuss, mainly because the appropriations committees are warding off almost all the social, environmental and health policy riders that could threaten the whole process
Debt limit. If “failure is not an option” is the political watchword on the spending bill, the motto applies doubly to granting the Treasury permission to borrow more.
The last fiscal showdown ended only when the potential for a market-rattling default was just hours away. Republicans may have waited until the final hour before blinking in October, but they’re highly unlikely to make a return to brinkmanship this time. That’s because they know doing so would change the principal national political story — Obamacare’s rocky rollout — back into the tale of GOP extremism
Republicans will talk a while longer about demanding concessions from Obama in return for a higher debt ceiling, but the diverse list of hostages they’ll mention will signal they don’t have the stomach for a real confrontation. And Obama has left absolutely no room in his rhetoric for making the borrowing limit part of any deal. “It is not something that is a negotiating tool,” he said at his year-end news conference. “It’s not leverage. It’s the responsibility of Congress. It’s part of doing their job.”
Permission to issue new debt lapses on Feb. 7, but Treasury says it can stretch cash flow into early March, when the outstanding debt will stand at about $17.3 trillion. Rather than raise the dollar limit on borrowing, which was the legislative practice for decades, Congress will probably move instead to allow Treasury leeway to borrow what it needs until a specific date. Sometime during the lame-duck session, scheduled to start Nov. 12, is a decent bet.
Farm bill. Negotiators are signaling a breakthrough is imminent on an impasse that began 15 months ago. For farmers, the most important feature will be a new subsidy system to replace direct payments, which are widely derided outside rural America because they are delivered regardless of crop prices.
Politically, the No. 1 issue remains how much to pare nutrition assistance for the poor. House Republicans appear united behind the view that, with the economy on the mend, a 6 percent cut to food stamps is not unreasonable. A bipartisan majority in the Senate, viewing the safety net fundamentally differently, went for a cut of about half of 1 percent. Negotiators have settled on 1.5 percent, or $8 billion over a decade, combined with some of the stiffened work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients that GOP conservatives want.
The assumption here is that — as an extension of his newly short-fused approach to the tea partyers in his ranks — Speaker John A. Boehner will permit the House to debate such a package, knowing it would clear with far less than a majority of the majority.
The Ohio Republican’s rationale would be that, for the election-year good of the party, he needs to bring a belated end to at least one marquee piece of the class warfare debate. Plus, Boehner knows Republicans are going to dig in their heels elsewhere, starting with the future for the minimum wage and long-term jobless benefits.
One sure bet: Even if the farm bill doesn’t get done, Congress will make quick work of a yearlong stopgap. Lawmakers may still be gridlocked, but they’re not crazy — and the absence of a temporary farm bill, to make a complex story short, would threaten a doubling of retail dairy prices.
If there’s one way not to start a campaign year, it’s being blamed for a $7 gallon of milk.
Last week, both houses of Congress passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal put forth by the Budget Conference Committee. The House passed the measure on Thursday night Dec. 12th by a 332-94 vote, and the Senate followed suit by passing the deal the following Thursday Dec. 19th by a vote of 64-36, and the final measure was to be signed into law by President Obama before he leaves on holiday travels to Hawaii. The two year deal provides for $1.012 trillion in discretionary spending in FY2014, with a slight increase to $1.014 trillion for FY2015. The compromise deal sits essentially half-way between the $1.058 trillion passed by the Democratically controlled Senate in their budget bill this past spring and the $967 billion sequester level spending Republicans sought to continue.
The deal allocates $520.5 billion in military spending and $491.8 billion for domestic programs in 2014. The across the board spending cuts of sequestration have been lifted, with the moderately increased spending to be split evenly between military and domestic spending, which restores military funding nearly to pre-sequestration levels. However, Congress will still face tough decisions in allocating domestic spending through the appropriations process, but the impact on popular programs such as education and Head Start will be less severe. The compromise deal does not continue unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed which are set to expire three days after Christmas, as Democrats had wanted, and it removes the across the board spending cuts of sequestration in exchange for future savings, disappointing Republicans. In favor of reaching a deal in time to meet the January 15, 2014 deadline, the larger and more ideological issues of tax reform to raise more revenue and containing growing Medicare and Social Security entitlement spending were left largely unresolved.
Among other specific provisions, the deal raises airline fees, presumably to be dedicated towards costs of airport security, and extends the 2% reduction in Medicare payments under the Budget Control Act of 2011 for an additional two years through 2023. However, the largest impact will be felt by government employees and military veterans. Although federal workers will receive a 1% pay increase, that is below the 1.2% inflation rate recently published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and does not extend to the lowest paid tiers of wage grade federal employees. New federal employees will be required to contribute 4.4% of their income towards their government pension program, a continued increase from the .8% required pre-sequestration. Also contentious is the reduction of the cost-of-living adjustments by 1% for military retirees under age 62. Despite the increased spending, domestic programs may still face staff reductions through layoffs and early retirement or buyout offers.
Recognizing the challenging timetable to complete the appropriations process before the current stop-gap measure that ended the October federal shut down expires on January 15, 2014, the allocation levels for the twelve individual appropriations bills, known as 302(b) spending caps, were not made public as is customary. Each subcommittee was privately told it’s cap and given until January 2, 2014 to make detailed appropriations and policy changes. Negotiators will convene the following week with the goal of getting passage through the House by January 10, allowing the Senate to begin deliberations on January 13, in time to send a final bill to President Obama for his signature by the January 15 deadline. Assuming this two-year budget deal can be finalized in time to meet the January 15 deadline, Congress still faces revisiting the debt-ceiling issue as that short-term measure is set to lapse as early as March 2014.