While Congress has focused on budget and debt deals in recent months, many other important issues have been placed on hold. The divide between the Senate and the House even resulted in certain legislation passing one, but failing in the other.
Now that the government has been reopened and debt limit extended to new deadlines, Congress can focus on these other major legislative goals. Different senators and representatives will play pivotal roles in what is to be considered “passable” legislation.
Congress needs to take the time they have before government faces another possible shutdown to tackle legislation calling for immigration reform, greater transparency in surveillance programs, simplifying the tax code, a farm bill that may include food stamp reform, and a long-term solution to the sequester.
The sequester has several moving parts to it. The economy is intertwined in government action so the more efficient government operates, the economy can rebound faster. Investors will keep an eye on how a deal is worked out to avert further employment erosion caused by sequestration.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the current immigration system is broken and fixing it should be a priority. President Obama set this as his primary domestic legislative goal for Congress to pass this year. There is even strong national support beyond President Obama and Congress as a July Public Policy Poll found that 73% of Americans supported the Senate’s proposal.passed the Senate in June with overwhelming bipartisan support — 68 to 32. This comprehensive version was anchored by the “Gang of Eight,” evenly split between four senators from both parties. The issue was raised multiple times and in another form passed the House 216 to 198 in 2010 when Democrats controlled the House.
Speaker Boehner has a less comprehensive and more piecemeal approach to immigration reform, citing the problems with Obamacare as an example of when one bill attempts to do too much.
Rather than take up the Senate bill, the House has had several plans that thus far have failed. Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Darrell Issa (R-Ca.), as chairmen of the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, respectively, have spearheaded this approach. The longer the majority of House Republicans oppose immigration reform or ignore a comprehensive approach to it, the more difficult it will be for them to maintain the majority.
The right to privacy has been a staple in American politics since the Bill of Rights. The current debate has centered on the controversial NSA surveillance program.
The National Security Agency is able to collect phone numbers, call duration, locate where the call was made, and even instant messaging accounts and ‘buddy lists.” Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor that began the leaks started a revolution that has upset not only ordinary citizens, but politicians as well.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), as chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, is trying to make the process more transparent while still maintaining the advantage over terrorists. The issue is more with limiting when and on who the metadata is collected and not stopping the programs.
These programs have proven to prevent over a dozen attacks, albeit specifics are also limited. What would voters think if they were privy to the information that is available to Congress?
The power that Congress has on everyday life is exemplified in the tax code. The old way of thinking has been that Democrats favor higher taxes on the wealthy while Republicans would cut taxes to stimulate the economy.
Democrats spurned President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 as a cause of lower revenue that would not have been the case if nothing had changed. Now, there is a more nuanced approach involving tackling deductions and corporate loopholes, as epitomized in the Simpson-Bowles proposal.
The chairman of the Senate Finance committee, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and the House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mi.) have been tossing ideas around on what deductions to eliminate and how high or low the rates will be set.
Tax deductions are a difficult place to start because they are a way to save a lot of money come Tax Day. The way to work around it would be to lower the rates to what they would be with the deductions.
The sequester began with good intentions, to lower spending in order to keep the U.S. fiscal path on track for long-term success. It does not touch entitlement programs, which lay on the proverbial third rail along with popular tax deductions. The problem is that it was more like a chainsaw to discretionary spending where a scalpel would have been better.
The recent deal that reopened the parts of the government that were shutdown was that a budget conference would be called together and it would deliver its results by December 13. That places Congress’ budget chairpersons at center stage.
Sen. Baucus and Rep. Camp will work closely with the committees to figure a way to combine tax reform with budget discussions. Any compromise would benefit investors, but while the stock market will undoubtedly go higher on any good news from Congress, Main Street can also rebound.
With a refurbished tax code, which will spur individual and corporate confidence, and a more efficient solution to replace the sequester, employment will receive a boost. The CBO estimates that the U.S. would add up to 1.6 million jobs in the next year if the sequester was removed.
The most popular part of the farm bills have been food stamps. This has constantly been the most expensive component, but it did not hamper fairly easy passage on its way to the president.
Farm bills also cover five year terms, the last of which ended in 2012.
As a result of the recession, the number of people on food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has increased to 47 million. The Senate planned on cutting $400 million per year while conservatives in the House pushed for ten times that, or $4 billion, along with stricter requirements on SNAP users.
Based on the last farm bill, food stamps cost the government around $80 billion a year. This week will mark the beginning of a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the farm bills. If nothing is done by the end of the year, food prices, especially milk, will likely increase due to the lack of subsidy funding for farmers.
These five legislative goals have been tossed around in Congress for years. The current gridlock may have halted progress, but at least both sides agree that something has to be done. It is idealistic to hope that these will all be tackled before the end of the 113th Congress, but at least one of them will reach Obama’s desk by the end of the year.