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Ending the Long March of Madness

United States Capitol BuildingUnited States Capitol Building (Photo credit: Jack Says Relax)

 March 21, 2014

TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE--While madness sweeps the nation, things are fairly quiet here in Washington. The nation’s capital sent George Washington and American Universities to the big basketball dance and also sent lawmakers home on weeklong recess.

But when Congress returns next week things should pick up through the summer until the August recess and the inevitable pre-election slow down. Considering they didn’t do that much during the first session of the 113th Congress, lawmakers have a lot of work ahead of them in the second session. The real challenge will be whether they can do their work responsibly. Recent indicators are not good:  while large bipartisan majorities did come together to enact a five year farm bill and undo flood insurance reforms earlier this year, neither piece of legislation was fiscally responsible or good policy.


Let’s take a look at what Congress has before them.  One of the pending pieces of legislation is a new bill authorizing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and policies. The bill used to be a big earmark-fest of wasteful water projects, but with the current earmark moratorium lawmakers have a chance to set up systems that only authorize the most critical and highest priority projects. Here’s more on the House andSenate versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

The same committees dealing with WRDA have to deal with the surface transportation bill that is expiring at the end of September. For years, they have been raiding the treasury as lawmakers’ highway spending eyes have outpaced their highway trust fund revenue stomach. The President’s budget request wasn’t any help with bogus offsets and outsize spending. It’s up to the Committees to reverse course and put the nation on the road to sensible transportation spending.

And of course,  there’s the big challenge: Enacting the twelve spending bills to fund government in regular order and on time. December’s Bipartisan Budget Act already set the top line spending number for fiscal year 2015, which pretty much obviates the need for a joint budget resolution between the two chambers. That gives them a head start. And Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) worked together to quickly pull together the omnibus spending bill for FY14. But all that said, the last time all the bills were done on time was 1996, and the last time they were done individually and on time (regular order) was 1994!

But the bills we’ve described only touch on the business that Congress should be doing to keep afloat.  If they’re really feeling ambitious, and actually want to move policy forward, we’d like to put a couple more items on the to-do list: Comprehensive tax reform and immigration reform.

Unlike a lot of special interests around town, we have been heartened by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp’s (R-MI) recent tax reform proposal. While not everything we wanted, it was a solid entering argument to get the debate going. And before he left to become Ambassador to China, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) put forward a credible “blank slate” approach to tax reform of eliminating all the breaks and adding back in only what is justified. There’s still a long way to go, but if the 1986 reform taught us anything it is that you need to have the ideas out there and debated and keep working on incremental progress.

On immigration reform, our biggest concern is that fiscal responsibility will be sacrificed on the altar of border security with a lot of expensive, ineffective gadgets and equipment being purchased to make the public feel better but accomplish little more than lightening the nation’s collective wallet. That’s what happened over the summer in the Senate, but we’ll be watching to see how the House progresses.

There’s a lot to get done this year. None of it is a slam dunk, but it shouldn’t take a desperation buzzer beater heave either.
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