Weekly Wastebasket

Thanksgiving Turkeys: Baked, Thawing, or Rotten

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November 21, 2012
Programs: Budget & Tax

Congress is yet again on vacation, giving taxpayers a short break from the full court press of an overstuffed lame duck session. While we try to catch our breath, we thought it important to see what’s left on this Congress’ plate. 

For a Congress that didn’t accomplish much—they were the least productive since World War II—there’s actually quite a bit already cooked, a few things that are thawing, and a few items waiting around, now rancid, that would probably give taxpayers a belly ache or worse:

 For the most part, the 112th Congress’ legacy is baked-in:

  •  Transportation Bill – After 11 extensions Congress finally agreed to a $105 billion transportation reauthorization bill after greasing it for passage with the gravy of fictitious “savings” from unrelated provisions and a flood insurance bill to slide it through. But Congressional appetite for ribbon cutting projects was too large and this bill will gobble up $18.8 billion in treasury revenues since gas tax dollars will fall short.
     
  • Regular Appropriations – It’s almost two months into fiscal year 2013 and not a single spending bill has been signed into law. Congress actually gave up and in September agreed to punt the spending decisions into next year with a six-month Continuing Resolution. Absent a year-end omnibus spending bill jamming everything through, the 113th Congress will be the third of the last four stuck with the previous Congress’ failed spending bills.
     
  • The Federal Budget –It’s not a total surprise Congress and the Senate couldn’t settle on exactly how to dish out taxpayer dollars to federal agencies, because they never even agreed to a menu. The House passed a budget resolution…while the Senate didn’t even vote on one.
     
  • 112th Congress – This bird is cooked. They had 22 months to address the big issues. Voters have made their choices and the 113th Congress is waiting in the wings. The 112th Congress needs to do the bare minimum in the lame duck, and then fly into the sunset.

While the 113th Congress is knocking on the door, there are a couple of items thawing on the counter. The big question is whether there is enough time to cook these through before New Year’s (forget about turkey day):

  • The Fiscal Cliff – There seems to be a thaw in the rigid rhetoric of both sides. Speaker Boehner has made it known Republicans are amenable to increased revenue, while there is acknowledgement from the President that spending and entitlements will have to be there at some point as well. That said, any kind of freeze in these negotiations, and the economy will be left with freezer burn.
     
  • Tax Reform – Related to the fiscal cliff discussion, an eventual deal on tax reform seems to be on the menu (finally). No one really expects the final decision to be made before the end of the year, but there clearly can be the outlines of an enforceable deal on taxes and entitlements. Here’s what we’re saying our prayers for: a simpler, flatter, and fairer tax code.

But then there are a number of policies that are only half-baked or have been left out too long, and just need to be tossed out before they make taxpayers sick:

  • Farm Bill – This turkey’s been sitting around since the summer. It’s full of budgetary salmonella. While agriculture is “suffering” from a record $122 billion in profits for 2012, this bill would increase subsidies and create new entitlement programs for big agribusiness. Boosters tout that the different versions could save $23-35 billion over the next ten years. These bills would spend nearly $1 trillion over ten years and they are arguing savings? Only in Washington…
     
  • Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) – This bill that provides direction and water projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t even get started until the lame duck. Until lawmakers reform the program and come up with a real system to prioritize and eliminate many of the nearly $70 billion backlog of projects that are not yet constructed (the agency gets less than $2 billion in construction funding annually) taxpayers should send this one down the drain.
     
  • Return of Earmarks – There has already been one effort to jumpstart the special interest giveaways known as earmarks. It’s not likely to be the last. The President has promised to veto earmark bills, the House majority has extended a moratorium, and now it’s time for the Senate to do the same. Then lawmakers can come up with real solutions to ensure precious taxpayer dollars go to only the best, most effective, and meritorious projects, programs, and policies.

The new Congress is going to have to deal with a lot of leftovers from the 112th.  Let’s hope they don’t have a fiscal cliff hangover coming into the New Year.

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