Optimism for Productivity Wanes

The new year gave reasons for hope that the 113th Congress may finally find its stride. Four bills appear to be on the fast-track for passage at the opening of the 2nd Session: unemployment insurance, appropriations, the debt limit, and the Farm bill. Some of the more optimistic members have also mentioned possible action on immigration reform and a new Voting Rights Act (VRA). However, in a little over a week optimism has waned. The long shot policies are beginning to look impossible and some safe-bet policies are starting to look less safe.

Unemployment insurance (UI) passed, somewhat surprisingly, its initial cloture vote in the Senate. It now faces at least one more 60-vote threshold before it can become law. However, since that time little progress has been made. The six Republicans that voted with Democrats to invoke cloture have since been shut out of the amendment process. As a result their calls to find savings to pay for the $18 billion extension, so far, will not receive a vote on the floor. Unless Reid recedes from his stance and allows Republican amendments, it is difficult to envision these Republicans again voting for cloture to pass the bill. Reid has signaled a willingness to do so but has not yet found Republican amendments to his liking. At the moment, an unemployment insurance extension still appears to be an uphill battle.

Negotiations on the Farm bill continue and are reportedly making progress. Despite reports of disagreement between Ranking Member Peterson (MN) and Speaker Boehner regarding diary supply controls, many remain optimistic an agreement will be reached. However, the Farm bill still has several political sticking points. On the one hand, if a Farm bill is not passed by the end of January milk prices will double due to expiring subsidies. On the other hand, it is not clear how many Republican members will vote for a Farm bill with only $9 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Just last June 62 House Republicans voted against, and ultimately killed, the original Farm bill with 20+ billion in cuts to the program. It is unclear how many Republicans would defect on the current agreement. Regardless, it is likely Boehner will have to find Democratic votes to pass the legislation.

The omnibus appropriations bill and the debt limit are certain to receive attention. Congress has ensured financial crisis if these issues are not addressed. Appropriators hope for a vote on the $1.1 trillion omnibus agreement by the end of the week, quickly passing a CR on Wednesday to avoid a shutdown in the interim. The debt ceiling again has become a negotiating point for Republicans even as President Obama continues to affirm that he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling.

Governing by crisis continues to be the modus operandi in Congress. The reasons for optimism surrounding these four policies were all based on the assumption that major consequences stem from inaction. And yet, as deadlines bear down on the nation it remains unclear whether all of these issues will be resolved.

However, policies without major consequences appear so unlikely they may be near impossible. It would take a minor miracle for immigration reform and a voting rights act to receive significant attention, much less pass. Without some kind of political or economic calamity looming over these bills legislators have little incentive to take them up, particularly in an election year. Legislating by crisis is not new to Congress. But in the 113th Congress, it appears to be the only way significant policies are considered.

Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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