Congress has been in session since January 3, with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and a newly elected Republican president in the White House. Congressional Republicans were all smiles as they quickly passed a concurrent budget resolution for fiscal years 2017 through 2026. This would be their vehicle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with 51 votes under the budget reconciliation process.
That was over four months ago and not much has been accomplished since. Oh, the House finally passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), but it is wildly unpopular all over the country.
During this Memorial Day week the House is in recess — again. So far this year the House has been in session for only 67 days. They will have just 31 total days in session during June and July and they will be off the entire month of August. No wonder members of Congress will do anything to keep this job.
Well, here is what they haven’t done yet and must get done before October.
Health Care – First, the Senate needs to pass some form of the AHCA, which is not a sure thing. If the Obamacare replacement isn’t signed by President Donald Trump before September 30, the concurrent budget resolution vehicle they are using could become void.
FY 2018-2027 Budget – Trump has sent his budget proposal to Congress. It’s called “A New Foundation for American Greatness.” Several top level Republicans said it was “dead on arrival.” Still, both chambers must pass a concurrent budget resolution for these fiscal years and start the appropriations process. This resolution will be the vehicle for another reconciliation process to pass tax reform without needing Democratic votes. Already they are a month behind.
Appropriations Bills – I don’t think there has been one normal budget process since the GOP took control of the House in 2011. Typically Congress uses a combination of the president’s budget and their concurrent resolution on the budget – neither of which is binding — to pass 12 individual discretionary spending bills for the fiscal year starting on October 1. These bills are signed by the president. I seriously doubt that Congress will be able to produce 12 coherent appropriations bills by September 30 and they may have to kick the can down the road with a continuing spending resolution like they have for the past six years.
Raise the Debt Limit – The federal debt limit was reached on March 15 so there can be no more government borrowing until that limit is raised. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin can use “extraordinary measures” to keep the government funded for several more months but due to slow revenue collections since March he has requested a “clean” debt limit increase bill from Congress by the end of July. Far-right Republican House members may try to obstruct this process with poison-pill amendments like they did during President Obama’s administration. Hopefully another debt limit crisis will be avoided.
Tax Reform – Tax reform, or at least a tax cut, is the most important item on the Republican agenda, and always is. Trump has proposed a tax cut plan and so has House Speaker Paul Ryan. But there is no broad GOP consensus on various taxing issues. Ryan’s plan includes a border adjustment tax that would raise $1 trillion over 10 years. Trump and Senate Republicans aren’t on board with this tax. Ryan wants revenue neutral tax reform that won’t increase deficits. Mnuchin says Trump’s plan will pay for itself by increasing economic growth. That claim is laughable.
With all of these legislative requirements and such a limited legislative schedule, it is almost certain that Congress will not be able to pass tax reform this year. If anything, they may adjust the rates for corporations and perhaps do some fiddling with the individual tax code and rates. But simply reducing tax rates will cause deficits to increase significantly and they are already at unacceptable levels.
Infrastructure – During the presidential campaign Trump continuously touted his $1 trillion infrastructure program. Stock market pundits hailed the “stimulus” that Trump would bring to the economy, along with the tax reform. (Funny, stimulus was a dirty word when Obama was president.) Trump’s budget does include language about a trillion dollar infrastructure program. But it actually includes only $200 billion of infrastructure spending over the next 10 years, $5 billion in 2018 and $25 billion in 2019. I don’t call that stimulus. At the same time Trump is proposing cuts in nondefense discretionary spending of $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Those cuts would affect the economy too – negatively.
Watching Trump and the GOP leadership in Congress is like watching an extended showing of the Keystone Kops, a classic early 1900s silent film comedy series. It featured inept policemen in pursuit of the bad guys, running around in hilarious confusion. Come to think of it, the policies Republicans are pursuing are early 1900s too. But what is going on in Congress these days is not very silent and certainly not funny.
There is one joke though, the approach Republicans in Congress take to work. They are keen to put work requirements on people who receive food stamps and Medicaid but they are loath to put tough work requirements on themselves.