Editorial December 6, 2013

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

“The House is acting crazy by redundantly producing insignificant work destined for failure…”

When Republican Leadership set the new rules for the House in 2010 they decided not to provide floor time and a vote for some resolutions. Those resolutions usually commended a university sports team, for example, for winning a NCAA championship or some other accomplishment. Before the Republicans curtailed consideration of those resolutions they more often than not outnumbered other substantive bills each week. They tended to take up very little floor time because they were brought to the floor under suspension of the rules allowing most to be passed by voice vote. Perhaps saving an hour each week made sense.

It was a curious decision by Leadership; freeing more floor time for debating substantive bills, one could conclude. On the other hand those resolutions tend to be brought by the Representative of the district in which the school, business, nonprofit effort, or other individuals or organizations that did something commendable. They were a good thing for a Representative back home but apparently that was less important than freeing up floor time and shortening an already demanding legislative schedule which included spending bills that had not been accomplished in the previous session.

So what was done with all that free time? Not much. As media reports, Congress has only managed to produce 52 laws up to this week at a time when around 200 is the norm. In a two year session around 4000 bills are introduced and five percent are made into law. We know that many of those introduced bills are duplicates and are introduced with the understanding that they will probably never see floor time but play well to the base back home.

Republicans complain that they have passed 150 bills that could have become law but the Senate did not debate them. That is true and not true. The Senate agreed to all of those 52 bills now law but what about the rest? Keep in mind that there is a fundamental difference between the parties as evidenced in the legislation brought forth and the legislation ignored. House Republicans are firm on cutting federal spending to the austere $986 billion despite their having agreed to $1.058 Trillion in a 2012 bill. One of the problems, then, is that the bills sent to the Senate are based on that number and the Senate prefers to go by the law, the Budget Act of 2012 that set the limit at $1.058 trillion. When those bills were amended and sent back to the House the House failed to attend conferences to iron out differences. Those bill stopped there.

Another thirty or so bills were not entertained in the Senate because all contained a ‘poison pill’; the bill might have sounded good but had a provision completely unacceptable to the Senate Majority. In most cases the poison pill was a provision devastating to the Affordable Care Act. Some of those, however, were amended to remove the ACA provisions but were either returned to the Senate with the provision reinstated or modified. House Leadership knew those bills would not gain in the Senate because of the poison pill. In the midterm elections we will hear about those bills, how they would have changed things, and how the Democrats mucked up the works by not passing them. That was their purpose.

All of this, of course, is political nonsense. The question raised is while Republican Leadership is using House rules to gain political traction next year, did they do enough to keep the country going? And the answer appears to be yes. The primary responsibility for funding government agencies begins with the House and even though they have not produced authorization and appropriation bills for about 6 agencies they have produced continuing resolutions on a regular basis although through a drawn out process that included attaching more ACA poison pills ad nauseam until it was clear the Senate would not yield. From there we witnessed an attempt, a ridiculous attempt, at partially funding programs or agencies through what would have been an endless list of minor continuing resolutions, but political pressure mounted to the point that a budget super committee was formed and required to come up with a budget deal by December 13th.

The House is acting crazy by redundantly producing insignificant work destined for failure rather than accepting the regular order and getting the Nation’s work done. The House has shown that its intentions are to cut spending in about every nook and cranny of the government and repealing the ACA. If that seems dysfunctional it should; insisting on austere cuts contradicts repealing the ACA, an action that would add $109 billion to the deficit. Repealing the ACA puts us back in the hands of insurers who have shown over the decades that their interest is much less helping by paying claims but more so to collect premiums and avoid paying claims. Do that and you will see a significant increase in hospital use and a growing need for various kinds of public assistance. In other words, even more spending will be necessary from a government drained of cash from tax cuts and special interest spending.

The number of bills signed into law is an indicator of how functional Congress is but not all that important. What is important is the outcome of the House strategy; less debt, less taxes but many more people in dire need of public assistance that will be denied them.

Why Can’t Congress Aim Higher?

 “…there are consequences to not producing an agreement capable of clarifying fiscal affairs.”

By Lee H. Hamilton

Hamilton

Hamilton

Congressional budget negotiators are moving to meet a December 13 deadline to produce, well, something. For weeks, we’ve been told to keep expectations low. There will be no “grand bargain,” negotiators say. Commentators believe that even the narrowest agreement will be a signal achievement. So here’s my question: Doesn’t that seem like an awfully low bar to you?

Yes, I know. The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is poisonous. The two parties — even the various factions within the parties — can barely stand to be in a room with each other. Expecting a sizable budget accomplishment from Congress right now is like expecting water from a rock. It would take a miracle.

Yet there are consequences to not producing an agreement capable of clarifying fiscal affairs. Right now, government agencies cannot plan ahead; they can’t consider long-term projects; they have trouble with staffing; they can’t set priorities; they’re forced to fund programs that have outlived their usefulness and cannot fund programs they know are necessary. And that’s just the federal bureaucracy. Contractors and people who depend on federal spending can’t plan, either. Our economy can’t achieve liftoff, and millions of ordinary Americans remain mired by its slow growth. Washington faces tough choices about spending, taxes, and entitlements, and Congress isn’t making them.

Things are not wholly bleak. Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the lead House negotiator, and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, who heads up the Senate team, have been working at least to address the sequester. As you’ll recall, this is the draconian set of across-the-board budget cuts put in place in 2011. At first, many agencies were able to defer maintenance, spend money they’d squirreled away, and cut staff by attrition. This next year will be much tougher: agencies are out of easy options, and defense spending faces an immense, $21 billion cut. That will be felt in every congressional district in the country, given how adept the Defense Department has been at spreading its largesse around. Not surprisingly, pressure is coming from both sides of the aisle to ease the impact.

The sequester is a cleaver, cutting good and bad government spending without rhyme or reason. If congressional negotiators can take a smarter approach, that’s all to the good.

But if they’re going to do that, shouldn’t they address the real problems? The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable. It needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.

These are daunting challenges, but Congress’s toolbox is hardly empty. It could limit itemized tax deductions, increase Medicare premiums for the well-to-do, place caps on spending, shave federal employee benefits to bring them in line with the private sector, increase government fees, sell public assets, put more of the wireless spectrum up for bid, increase the Social Security contributions of higher-income earners, change the consumer price index… There are literally scores of possibilities, none of them easy, but all of them offering adroit negotiators the chance to craft a long-term solution to problems that have beset Capitol Hill for years and held economic growth far below its potential.

By addressing these issues head on, Congress could move beyond the political machinations that have deeply frustrated so many Americans, and play a constructive role in the economy: promoting growth by investment in infrastructure and basic research, providing incentives for entrepreneurship and job creation. It could create a responsible framework for reducing spending as the economy grows. It could reform a tax code that everyone agrees is broken.

At some point, Congress will have to put the federal budget on “a sustainable path for the long term,” in the words of the CBO. So long as it does not, the economic consequences hurt everyone. Congressional leaders seem blissfully unconcerned about this and aim only for low-hanging fruit, but Americans know that Congress can and should do better, and are rightly tired of careening from crisis to crisis. As members of Congress continue to make politically attractive suggestions that don’t come close to achieving a lasting solution, let’s urge them to get real. It’s time for Congress to go big.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.