Congress' unfinished business: a rundown

It was one of the stranger scenes I’ve seen so far in D.C.

Hoping for a bit of theater, a flock of House Democrats followed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi down the famous steps of the Capitol and stood in the afternoon sunlight last week as she urged Republicans to keep the House in session and work on several major issues that remain unresolved.

Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, tried to make a play-on-words using President Obama’s “fired up and ready to go!” chant of 2008.

“Fired up – and ready stay!” he proclaimed.

Only the Democrats behind him weren’t in on it, and answered his “fired up” call with the familiar “ready to go!” response, apparently forgetting that the point of the spectacle was that they wanted to stay and vote some more.

In the end, the GOP-led House cast its final votes and left town, followed soon after by the Democratically-controlled Senate, leaving several massive pieces of legislation either half-finished or entirely untouched, even though solutions are needed before the end of the year. Some of them are pressing enough that they may come up on the campaign trail between now and Nov. 6 and have a direct impact on our region.

Here’s a quick summary of the work left for after Election Day, with a look at what impact the issues have in our region, keeping in mind that for Congress, passing bills is a lot like writing a high school paper: nothing gets done until the last minute.

-- The Fiscal Cliff: This is the big one, the number one issue facing lawmakers and whoever wins the presidential race, and something that will have to be the top priority between Election Day and year’s end. An array of tax cuts are set to expire and sweeping, automatic budget cuts are set hit – for a total of around $500 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts all at once. The one-two punch would almost surely send the nation back into a recession, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, would raise taxes on many, many Americans and slash defense spending and social programs. As I wrote this weekend, the prospect of this combination, and the fact that no one has come up with an answer to it, has raised ire and concern from all corners, including Philly Mayor Nutter. Ex-defense secretary Robert Gates compared the whole situation to a famous scene in Blazing Saddles (check out the story).
Local Impact: Defense contractors in the area, and there are many around the bases in South Jersey, (giants like Lockheed-Martin as well as smaller firms) fear the military cuts and could have to slash jobs if they come to pass. Social services throughout the region could also be hit, with Nutter warning of less money for federal programs such as Head Start and cleaning lead from homes. Businesses, he said, are wary to invest because of the threat of a financial meltdown due to Congressional inaction.

No one wants to see the defense and domestic cuts come to pass, so expect a deal there – most likely a punt that delays the cuts into next year sometime, when Congress pinky-swears that they’ll really, really address the issue.

The outcome on taxes is more hazy because so much depends on the political dynamics of who wins the presidency and control of the Senate and House. Romney has run on a message of holding down taxes, so if he wins expect the GOP-controlled House to hold out for his inauguration and make lower taxes one of the first orders of business in a Romney presidency.

If Obama wins, the president will have all the leverage and tax increases on higher incomes look likely. The Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year, so even if the GOP-controlled House fights him to a temporary stalemate, taxes will still rise on everyone. Then Obama can push for targeted cuts and the GOP will be left to either support his plan or be seen as the roadblock causing taxes to go up on the middle class. Obama has called for raising taxes income over $250,000, though some Democrats, particularly from big cities, would like to see a higher threshold.

-- The Farm Bill: The bill that provides subsidies to many farmers and pays for food stamps technically expires at the end of September, though there is no practical impact until Jan. 1. Farmers and nutrition groups are clamoring for a renewal, and the Senate has passed a five-year plan. But there has been trouble in the House. Republicans from agrarian areas want to see a similar bill approved. GOP deficit hawks want deeper cuts. The Senate insists that a five-year plan is best, in order to give farmers assurances, though the House has talked about a one-year stopgap.
Local impact: The food stamp program is important to local low-income areas. Farmers in South Jersey, growing fruit like blueberries, don’t benefit much from the biggest subsidies – for crops such as dairy, wheat and corn, and last I checked there wasn’t a ton of farmland in Philly. Some of the federal aid, though, and particularly the dairy subsidies, are critical for other parts of Pennsylvania. Sen. Bob Casey. a Pennsylvania Democrat, noted that dairy is Pennsylvania’s largest agricultural sector when he voted for the bill.

-- Post Office reform: For a combination of reasons – from heavy pension bills to the public’s increasing reliance on electronic communication – the Post Office is losing a ton of money, missing payments on its obligations and is set to run out of cash around the middle of next year. The USPS wants to close some facilities and cut back on Saturday service, but they need approvals from Congress. Those are ideas many support in general, but no one wants to see their local post office shut down. This issue won’t appear in any campaign ads, but it’s sure to be one people care about – there aren’t many arms of government more visible to the average person than their post office.
Local impact: Just about everyone uses the post office. Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, is heavily involved in the issue.

-- The SGR: This is one of the acronyms that everyone here throws around like it’s a word you learn in elementary school. Cat. Dog. Desk. Chair. SGR.

Basically it works like this: as part of 1997’s Balanced Budget Act, one supposed savings was cutting Medicare payments to doctors if spending exceeded certain targets (the Sustainable Growth Rate). Of course, once the cuts were actually about to hit, Congress balked upon the realization that they might have to actually make someone angry as they tried to save money. Lawmakers averted the reductions, keeping payments to doctors basically on their historic trajectory.

Every year the cuts are supposed to hit, and every year Congress and doctors dodge the bullet – 14 times. The cost of the fix gets higher and higher each time. Once again, doctors are clamoring for a reprieve and Congress seems likely to provide it, worrying that the cuts would force some doctors to stop accepting Medicare patients and hurt the program.
Local Impact: Philly and MontCo Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, a former health care executive with close ties to the medical community, has proposed a permanent SGR repeal to stop the annual fight over the cuts. Expect the local Dem to make a push for her plan, especially if there is a grand bargain to be struck on fiscal issues, but with so many other big decisions left to be made, it might be too heavy of a lift to add this bill onto the pile of work waiting once Congress’ recess ends.