WASHINGTON — In framing his campaign message as one of Washington dysfunction and congressional obstruction last week, President Obama hit on a very basic problem facing Washington today: Democrats and Republicans in this town simply can’t agree to do anything.
The biggest piece of legislation this Congress has passed was a deficit reduction package last August so flawed that both Democrats and Republicans are working to undo its signature component — $1.2 trillion in spending cuts to domestic and defense programs — less than a year after Obama signed it into law.
Stymied by partisanship and unable to work together to pass major pieces of new legislation, Congress has been left working on issues it’s required by law to consider, such as reauthorizations for expiring federal programs and a budget that likely won’t be finalized until after this November’s elections.
But Congress can punt on even those bills, as well — Congress can and often does spend money on programs that have expired while it debates a way to extend them full-time (No Child Left Behind, which was due for reauthorization in 2007, is one such program).
“The rules are such that Congress is not supposed to appropriate money to programs that are not authorized,” University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said, “but as Congress often does, it can waive such rules.”
Members of the Minnesota delegation have largely left the political wrangling to congressional leadership, though a few have larger roles than others. Rep. Collin Peterson is the lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, which is expected to begin debate on a must-pass farm bill within the next few weeks. Rep. John Kline is the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and steered the party’s No Child Left Behind reform measures through the committee earlier this session.
Here’s a brief list of what Congress theoretically has to pass this session, and where the bills are in the legislative process:
The Farm Bill: The Senate is debating a nearly-$1 trillion five-year renewal of federal farm, nutrition and conservation programs set to expire on Sept. 30, and there’s a fair amount of bipartisan and bicameral agreement on what a final deal could look like.
The Senate bill cuts direct federal subsidies to farmers and boosts federal support for crop insurance, a move supported by Republicans, Democrats, the White House and many farmers and agriculture organizations. The Senate bill cuts $4.5 billion from the food stamps program, and though the House is likely to make more significant cuts in this area when its version of the bill is introduced (sometime before July 4, according to Agriculture Committee staff), lawmakers are confident they’ll be able to work out the differences and actually pass a bill.
“There are going to be some battles, particularly on the House floor,” Peterson said in a statement, “but Chairman [Frank] Lucas and I are united; Chairwoman [Debbie] Stabenow and Ranking Member [Pat] Roberts are united in the Senate and I really think we’re going to get this done.”
A bill reauthorizing Food and Drug Administration user fees is in similar straits: the Senate and House each passed separate versions of the bill in May with broad bipartisan support, sending it to a conference committee.
Transportation funding: The Senate passed a two-year $109 billion transportation funding bill in March that, if enacted, would send $1.4 billion to Minnesota over the next biennium.
The House has been unable to move on its version of the bill, though, due to a Republican caucus splintered over its size and scope. Congress approved a 90-day extension of transportation programs in March before funding expired.
The House’s inaction on the bill has been a huge target for Democrats in the Senate, who argue Republicans have already cost jobs by failing to pass a bill before the summer construction season. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken gave a speech last week warning that states have already begun to cancel projects because of the lack of funding.
Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said that’s not the case in Minnesota, though MnDOT still wants Congress to pass a long-term bill before the end of the year.
“MnDOT did not at this point defer or eliminate any work because of the lack of a federal bill,” he said in a statement. “MnDOT has positioned itself to either ride out a gap in funding, or react to a reduction in funding. We look forward, as all the states are, to passage of a federal bill.”
No Child Left Behind: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act — more commonly known as No Child Left Behind — is already years overdue for renewal, and remains one of the major policy areas where Congress and the White House are unable to find even a shred of consensus.
The John Kline-led House Education Committee passed two bills this spring making up the whole of Republicans’ NCLB reform efforts. The bills would give much of the control over education policies to the states, scrapping federal standards but mandating states develop their own. The House has yet to take up the bills.
“Changing the law is critical, and I hope the [bills] will be brought up for full consideration in the House soon,” Kline said through his committee spokeswoman.
Even if the House does vote on the bills, they’ll hit a wall in the Senate and with the White House. Acknowledging the lack of common ground, President Obama announced in September that the federal government would begin granting waivers for states that undertake reform efforts on their own. Eighteen states, including Minnesota, have received such waivers.
Student-loan interest rates: More immediately, Congress needs to pass a bill to keep student interests rates from doubling before the end of the month.
Both parties want to do so, but they can’t agree on how to pay for it. House Republicans passed a bill zeroing-out a health care reform fund to pay for the one-year bill’s $6 billion price tag. Democrats in the Senate want to close tax loopholes for businesses.
The interest rate for Stafford student loans doubles from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1, affecting 7 million families, by the Department of Education’s count. For the sheer number of potential voters affected, conventional wisdom says it’s politically expedient for both parties to want action on this issue.
“It’s in both parties’ interest to resolve this issue,” Pearson said. “The problem is that they don’t know how it solve it. Both sides have an incentive to compromise and make this work.”
The Violence Against Women Act is in a similar spot: both the House and Senate have passed a version of the bill, but the House removed a series of provisions from the Senate bill and most Democrats turned against it. VAWA technically expired in September, but Congress funded its programs in the 2012 budget.
Appropriations Bills: Congress also needs to appropriate money for the federal budget before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Of the 12 federal spending bills, the House has passed five and the Senate, none.
The most likely outcome here will be what’s called a continuing resolution, a short-term continuation of current funding levels until Congress has time (likely post-Election Day) to work on putting together a full-time solution.
Continuing resolutions are anything but rare; it took five such measures last year before the 2012 budget was finalized in December.
“Over the last several Congresses, we’ve just seen such huge delays every year, whether or not it’s an election year,” Pearson said. “I would expect they will be late this time around again.”
Lame-Duck Madness: The real fun starts in November, post-election, when the lame-duck Congress will have to tackle:
- The expiring tax cuts instituted under President Bush;
- The expiring payroll tax cut passed in Obama’s stimulus bill;
- The $1.2 trillion funding cuts to domestic spending and defense programs, and more.
Combine all this (along with other provisions like extending unemployment benefits and negotiating a debt limit increase) and you have what has deemed a “fiscal cliff:” Allow all the taxes to increase and the first wave of spending cuts to take effect all at once and the economy falls into a recession in early 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The problem, of course, is that Democrats from Obama on down have hoped to let at least some of the Bush tax cuts lapse, while Republicans have hoped to make them permanent; Republicans have called for replacing part or all of the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, but would do so by cutting federal spending on food stamps, which is a non-starter with Democrats.
What Congress is able to accomplish in its lame-duck session really depends on what happens on Nov. 6, with the winning party presumably declaring a mandate from voters to push its agenda, though there’s no indication the losers will go down quietly. It will make for an explosive finish to the 112th Congress already marked by its share of partisan fireworks.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry