Cram A Year's Legislation Into A Few Days, Or Punt?

As we begin the final week of 2017′s congressional calendar, it is worth noting how ridiculous the whole process has now become. This becomes painfully obvious when you compare what has been done versus what remains to be done. Because after the final votes on the GOP’s Christmas gift to their wealthy donors (expected Tuesday and Wednesday), an entire year’s worth of problems are supposedly going to be dealt with ― before the end of Friday. No wonder the public holds Congress in such low esteem.

Other than the Senate confirming judges and presidential appointments, what exactly has been accomplished this year in Congress? Not much. They’ve kicked a lot of things down the road ― most notably the budget ― and have failed to address all sorts of other pressing issues, to boot.

Roughly the first half of the legislative year was spent in an abortive attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell really wanted to just prove it couldn’t be done early in the spring and then move on to other things, but the White House insisted on wasting gobs of time on this failed effort. This meant everything else in Congress (since they are so obviously incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time) got pushed aside. When the final attempt failed in the Senate, more than half the year had been consumed by tilting at this windmill. The only real thing Republicans had accomplished on Obamacare was to make it a lot more popular with the public, once they found out what the Republican ideas for “replacement” turned out to be. Obamacare’s popularity, ironically, hit public approval highs that Barack Obama himself never managed while he was in office.

Then Congress pivoted to “tax reform.” That’s what they called it originally, before it devolved into a tax-cutting frenzy for wealthy individual GOP donors and big businesses, with not a shred of fiscal restraint. Originally, Republicans swore it would be “revenue-neutral,” but that concept was quickly left by the wayside. Then they limited themselves to only blowing a $1.5 trillion dollar hole in the budget, and got down to the serious business of screwing the little guy in favor of those who really had no need of a tax cut.

Republicans have now all fallen into line behind their plan, despite the fact that they used to vociferously complain about budget deficits and despite the fact that what they’ve come up with in no way resembles a “middle-class tax cut,” because they were so desperate to prove they could get something (anything!) done this year. They’ve all sold themselves on the delusion that their base voters will reward them for doing so, even though the plan is already wildly unpopular with the public. Trump voters in particular seem to be waking up to the fact that Trump just sold them out in a big way in order to provide himself (and those in his income bracket) enormous tax breaks. This backlash against the plan could grow throughout the course of the next year, when everyone figures out what exactly the new scheme means for their own tax situation, although it won’t become completely apparent until early 2019, when everyone has to fill out their tax returns for the 2018 tax year (which is, conveniently for Republicans, months past the midterm elections).

So, to recap, the Republican Congress spent over half the year on a failed effort to repeal an ever-more-popular Obamacare, and then spent all their remaining time producing a real turkey of a tax cut for the wealthy that the public already hates.

As I predicted about a month ago, this leaves quite a lot on their plate, all of which will have to be dealt with in some fashion by Friday. So an entire year’s worth of necessary legislation will somehow be thrown together in two or three days. Back then, I wrote:

This has resulted in quite a few things getting shoved up against end-of-the-year deadlines. Next month, in addition to whatever happens on the tax bill, Congress will be required to: pass an omnibus budget deal, raise the debt ceiling, pass a DACA immigration fix, and pass a bipartisan bill to tweak the Obamacare subsidy programs. Each one of those would normally result in weeks of debate and lots of jockeying for position and dealmaking, but they may all have to happen at once. The budget will be the big fight, and may just subsume all the rest of the issues into one giant bill (if the past is any indication of how these things eventually happen).

I even missed a few things in the list I came up with, I should confess. Congress also has to pass CHIP funding for children’s health care (whose funding they let lapse months ago), extend the surveillance laws for the NSA (which expire this Friday and are shaping up to be incredibly contentious), beef up border security (a big priority for Trump and the Republicans), and resolve the issue of once again ignoring the budget caps for both defense spending and social spending (Republicans want more defense spending and no additional spending for everything else, while Democrats want parity). You’ve got to admit that’s a pretty monstrous list of “to do” items, no matter what you think about any of these issues. One month ago, I pointed out:

Which sets up a December with a Congress which has so far been unable to act upon anything having to address multiple major issues all at once. While all of Washington and the media world have been solely focused on the GOP’s tax bill, nobody’s been paying much attention to the backlog waiting in the wings. And, unlike the tax bill, there are hard deadlines attached to many of these issues. So after eleven months of inaction, we may be in for an absolute frenzy of political battles being fought in the final month of the year. The issues are all large, complex, and have clear partisan battle lines already drawn. It’s impossible to say how successful Congress will be at addressing any of these (they could always punt and pass yet another short-term extension to all the deadlines on the budget questions), but no matter what happens it seems sure that December is going to be a very busy month on Capitol Hill.

Turns out I was optimistic. They didn’t spend all of December on any of this stuff. They are going to take the next few days to finish up their tax bill, which leaves not a month to figure all this stuff out but instead maybe two or three days to make all of these crucial decisions they’ve been putting off all year long.

This exponentially increases the likelihood that what will actually happen this week will be yet another gigantic punt. Already, the debt ceiling has been pushed out (by “extraordinary accounting measures” by the Treasury that have now become rather common). The budget could easily be pushed out until January as well. DACA doesn’t have a hard deadline until early March. The Obamacare subsidies were promised to Susan Collins to convince her to vote on the tax bill, but will also likely be punted to next year ― even though the states are going to start running out of money to continue them very soon. The CHIP programs are also running out of money, but Republicans so far haven’t paid much of a political price for screwing around with poor children’s health (while instead concentrating on cutting taxes for Wall Street), so they’ll probably be content to punt this one, too. The one issue which may be hard to punt is reauthorizing the warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of American citizens. This issue actually is rather bipartisan, because there are Republicans (such as Rand Paul) who are incensed about the program and want it changed. But as Congress has proven so far, there is no issue so big it can’t be punted down the road for a few weeks or even a few months, so perhaps voting for an extension will appeal to everyone just so they can flee Washington and get home in time for the holidays.

If all this sounds rather pathetic, well, that’s because it is. What’s even more pathetic is that while the Republicans have wasted the entire year on one effort that failed and one seriously flawed tax bill, they have done so by running around with their hair continually on fire. All of their major legislative efforts have been constructed without any regard to “regular order” whatsoever ― they spent long periods of time bickering among themselves in back rooms (far from the public eye), and then they presented the result with the caveat that it absolutely must be voted on within mere hours of its release. You have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it, they explained (without recognizing their sheer hypocrisy, of course, since they used to complain so loudly about this very tactic). So they have achieved what seems to be an oxymoron, by wasting an entire year while in complete panic mode: “Ahhh! We have to vote right now ― we simply don’t have time for any public discussion of what we’re trying to do!” All while wasting all the time in the world, which could have been spent discussing all the other pressing issues of the day. What’s even more amusing is that all this time-wasting and panicking has all happened within the Republican caucus. Democrats were not invited to even take part of any of it.

Now we’re down to the wire, and we truly are in panic mode. The entire business of the federal government must be decided by week’s end, despite not having spent any time at all on it throughout the entire legislative calendar. And this time, Democratic votes will be needed to pass anything. Does anyone really expect any solid progress by Friday on any of it? An entire year’s worth of legislation really cannot be thrown together in two day’s time, to state the obvious. So look for a gigantic punt of almost everything, late on Friday, so they can all go home for yet another few weeks of unearned vacation time.

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

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