The lame duck Congress is living up to its name. With the debates on 2021 spending bills and an additional COVID-19 emergency spending bill converging, some lawmakers appear to be taking their eye off the ball. Rather than ensure a fiscally responsible path for the potentially $2.3 trillion+ legislative package, they are looking at this giant bill as a great opportunity for their pet cause. Instead of using the waning days of the 116th Congress to plant parochial payouts or feather their own nests, lawmakers need to put pen to paper and get the job done.
Giving away the farm – Plenty of sectors are still suffering economically, but agriculture is living high on the hog. Despite the pandemic 2020 farm sector income (profit) is projected to be $119 billion, the highest level in nearly a decade. Nearly half of this is from federal subsidies. Federally subsidized crop insurance, trade war bailouts, and “emergency” disaster payments, including to businesses that also had crop insurance, for weather disasters in the swing, err, key Ag states of Iowa and Georgia, contribute to government payments reaching heights not seen for 20 years. Yet $9.9 billion more may be on the way. This is less about helping sectors deal with the pandemic and more to do with padding the landing in 2021 from such subsidized heights. At least it’s not the $50 billion some aggies were demanding earlier this year. Using Congressional math this might even be a savings…
Extending a helping hand to special interests – The last legislative train of a Congress almost always wakes one of the swampiest swamp creatures: tax extenders. In this hodgepodge of special interest provisions, Congress extends for a year or two, or in this case retroactively applies, a passel of “temporary” tax cuts. Being temporary hides the cost because they no longer count after two years. But these tax code cockroaches almost never expire, instead being extended, again and again, on some must pass bill. Nearly $100 billion in extenders were added at the last minute to the 2008 bank bailout. They also caught a ride on the fiscal cliff deal in 2012 and Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. The cost for these legislative lampreys will be much less, but still with little to no bearing on the pandemic. If these provisions are truly critical Congress should debate them, make them permanent, and find a way to pay for them.
Good enough for government contractor work – Among the potential giveaways of your tax dollars is an effort to pay government contractors through April, even though they are unable to work because the agency they serve is effectively closed. There doesn’t appear to be any additional money to pay these salaries, instead the agencies would use existing funds already appropriated. Without a trace of apparent irony, the CEOs of General Dynamics, Deloitte, and Leidos (among others) wrote in a letter to Congress, “This has been particularly crucial to many small businesses who cannot afford to keep their employees afloat when unable to access federal facilities.” Perhaps if the Fortune 500 members of the government contracting elite were less Scrooge and more Cratchit and paid out of hide for their employees who aren’t working, there would be enough money to cover the ones employed by small businesses.
This Congress is late. They’ve already blown past the October 1 start of fiscal year 2021 with no spending bills in place, leaving the entire federal government in limbo relying on a continuing resolution to fund at last year’s levels. After ten months of pandemic purgatory many of the programs put in place expire in two weeks. But the economic recovery is cooling, or worse, with initial weekly jobless claims rising and 12 million still unemployed. And the virus is roaring back. With vaccines starting to ship there appears to be a light at the end of this tunnel. But too many lawmakers have tunnel vison when it comes to legislating for the pandemic. Congress needs to narrow its focus, get its job done, and get out of town. 2021 is a new year and a new opportunity. It’s time to move on.