Don’t Look Now: The Do-Nothing Congress Is About to Get Stuff Done

A historically unproductive Congress takes up a series of important legislations and nominations during its final two weeks of the year

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Susan Walsh / Associated Press

A person walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 9, 2013

Congress plans to take up a blur of significant tasks over the next two weeks: the budget, defense and farm bills, the nomination of five major judicial- and executive-branch appointees, and a potential permanent Medicare “doc fix.” It’s an aggressive end-of-the-year schedule for the least productive legislative branch since at least World War II. While all may not be resolved, the next several days will pave the way for important negotiations at the beginning of next year.

Here is a quick guide to fights and deals ahead:

A Modest Budget Deal
The emerging two-year budget deal backed by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin — the budget chairpersons of their respective chambers — would not significantly reduce the nation’s $17 trillion-plus debt. It would raise revenue, though not through taxes. The current plan is to raise fees on airplane tickets, auction off broadcast spectrum and require federal workers to pay more into their pension plans. The deal also would not significantly cut mandatory spending, but could replace much of the misguided, across-the-board sequester cuts, which will otherwise slice $90 billion in discretionary spending next year. In a late push, Democrats are advocating to extend emergency unemployment insurance (UI), pointing out that 1.3 million Americans will lose their benefits on Dec. 28.

Murray and Ryan talked over the weekend, no doubt about the cracks in the congressional caucuses as details emerged last week. Democrats, especially House minority whip Steny Hoyer and House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, both of Maryland, have pushed back on having federal workers pay more toward their retirement, while Republicans have countered that the deal should not include the UI extension as unemployment fell in November to a five-year low of 7%. Extending UI benefits would cost nearly $26 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while the Murray-Ryan deal would raise less than $17 billion from the federal workers pension changes, according to the Washington Post.

(MORE: Report Card for Congress, 2013: Incredibly Inefficient but Not Lazy)

The deal, according to congressional aides with knowledge of the discussions, would increase discretionary spending from $967 billion in 2014 to slightly over $1 trillion for the next two years. While the spending level is up for debate, congressmen on the Appropriations Committee would love to have a “topline” number to return to regular order, a process that could end the careening from manufactured crisis to crises. But some congressmen openly doubt that this deal could solve this problem, despite the significance of the budget chairs agreeing to a new “topline.”

“I would love to see the appropriations process go through regular order,” Representative Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina, told TIME, “[But] I think we’re kidding ourselves if that’s going to happen anytime in the near future.” Mulvaney and 19 other hard-line conservatives wrote a letter last week to House Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor endorsing a full-year funding bill at current spending levels despite the “inefficiently applied” sequester cuts. Congress has until Jan. 15 before the government’s borrowing authority runs out, but Murray and Ryan set Friday as the deadline for the 29-member budget conference to come to an agreement.

Hope for a Farm Bill
By all indications, Congress will not vote on the farm bill this year, even though its negotiators have made big strides from mid-September, when the House voted to cut food stamps by $40 billion over 10 years, three months after the Senate endorsed a cut 10 times smaller. The level of food-stamp spending, which at around $80 billion a year comprises the vast majority of the farm bill, is not the only problem as corn, bean, cotton, wheat and rice farmers battle to maximize their subsidies. Still, the lead negotiators, Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, and House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, both announced they had made “great progress” in coming to a compromise last week. Congress passed the last five-year Farm Bill in 2008 and have worked with temporary extensions since it expired.

A Short-Term ‘Doc Fix’
The Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee have been trying to figure out a long-term permanent fix to how Medicare doctors get paid. Since 2003, according to National Journal, Congress has passed 15 “doc fixes” — payments to physicians to cover the cost of care for Medicare beneficiaries — totaling $150 billion. Congressional aides say the negotiation to end the perennial “doctor fix” is at its closest point in around a decade, but trouble still lies ahead for how to find around $116 billion over the next decade to pay for the repeal. Congress thus will not vote on an alternative payment structure this year, which the Senate Finance Committee will mark up on Thursday, so Congress will again need to pass a short-term “doc fix.” If it doesn’t, Medicare provider reimbursements will be cut by approximately 24% in January. Congressional aides close to the negotiations hope that the short-term fix will last around three months to put pressure on the negotiators to come to a deal.

(MORE: Fallout From the Filibuster-Rule Change)

Defense-Bill Progress
The defense bill is the most likely major piece of legislation to pass this year, as leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced on Monday afternoon that they had reached a nearly $633 billion deal. Congress has enacted an annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the past 52 years, and a failure to come to a compromise on the issue of national security would have been a major target for those eager to name this Congress one of the worst. The agreement may dismay Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and her allies in the Democratic leadership, as it does not include her language removing prosecution of sexual-assault crimes from the military’s chain of command. Gillibrand may now try to pass the amendment as a stand-alone bill. She told TIME that she was close to the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold that guarantees passage in the upper chamber. The deal touts over 30 provisions or reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice related to combating sexual assault, including one that strips commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial. Boehner supports the current NDAA agreement.

A Flurry of Nominations
While the future of legislative reform in health care, defense, agriculture and budget remains in doubt, President Obama should have a very effective December, when it comes to getting his picks for government confirmed. He has nominated three judges to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Federal Reserve chairwoman, a director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and a new chief for the Department of Homeland Security. The nominees will be on a new fast track paved by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who in late November “went nuclear” by lowering the threshold from 60 votes to 51 for executive branch and non–Supreme Court federal-judge nominations. While Republicans cried foul, pointing out that the vast majority of President Obama’s nominees have been confirmed, Democrats countered that nearly half of all cloture motions ever filed have been made since Obama took office.

The Senate will begin the postnuclear era Tuesday as it considers Patricia Millett to be a judge for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. When confirmed, Millett will turn the split court, which hears many of the most important cases involving the federal government, to the left.

MORE: Senate Republicans Opt for Guerilla Warfare in Postnuclear Era

20 comments
MrObvious
MrObvious

How do you spot lazy cods?


Always does everything in the last minute after having had so much time on their hands doing nothing. I'm not one to give credit to anyone for waiting until the very last second to do mundane tasks that's part of their job.


If anything I'd wish I could mandate that they work at least 80% time, instead of the the 100 and change days they work now (just look at who sets the schedule and figure that one out - more time to smooch with campaign donors and the rest naming post offices they'll close and repealing).

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

They have no chance of reversing the monicker of "least productive congress ever," with the remaining calendar. "Get Stuff Done," is a ridiculously low bar, considering what needs to be done. 

MacFrite
MacFrite

What a pathetic excuse for a governing body

roknsteve
roknsteve

"We need more whine before we can do stuff", says Delbert Bumbutt ( R-Goonville )  Plus the conservatives are still out chasing Unicorns and are too busy for real stuff.

notsacredh
notsacredh

"The Senate will begin the postnuclear era Tuesday as it considers Patricia Millett to be a judge for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. When confirmed, Millett will turn the split court, which hears many of the most important cases involving the federal government, to the left."

This is the biggie. The right (at least the ones with half a brain) knows how important the courts are. That's why they've filibustered Obama's nominees. Even in the unlikely scenario that they win the White House again in 2016, the courts will still reflect Obama's centrist leanings. The GOP wants to get those bench seats and keep the courts as right wing rubber stamps.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Do nothing Congress and do nothing White House.  Dont forget the other.

Libtards-UNITE
Libtards-UNITE

Don't kid yourself.  This congress is a bunch of worthless stooges.

notsacredh
notsacredh

@shepherdwong, the Tea Party is standing by to make sure as little as possible gets done. I still can't understand why that bunch of terrorists aren't on the "No Fly" list.

notsacredh
notsacredh

@roknsteve, please don't use conservatives and unicorns in the same sentence. I keep picturing Voldemort drinking their blood. 

jmac
jmac

@ReneDemonteverde  What would you like him to do, Rene?   Finally get the last progressive country health care reform?    Get the man who took down our towers and killed over 3,000 in one swoop?  Pass reform to rein in the banks that ran amuck during the Bush administration and took us to a Great Recession?  Bring the troops home from Iraq where they never should have been in the first place?  Etc, etc?   


What did Bush accomplish?  Almost taking us to a second Great Depression and doubling the National Debt as his v.p claimed Reagan proved deficits don't matter and they took us to the gutter on torture?      Obama doesn't have to do anything else and he will have accomplished more than the last president - by far.    But he's not done as he's still working for solutions to the Middle East - stay tuned.   He might be on Mount Rushmore yet.  Health care's a Big F. Deal.   A Middle East solution will be just as big.  

Arimathean
Arimathean

@JohnNagel  Nobody's reading your POS fantasy report, no matter how many times you post it.  Bug off.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@jmac @ReneDemonteverde Progressive country health care reform last I heard is bogged down in complaints, passed by people never understanding what it meant, compounded by a liar for a President

that if you like your plan you can keep it, you can keep your doctor, premium will not go up. Period. Period

Period. Get the man who ordered 3000 killings in one swoop ? Using the system placed by Bush, spies monitoring placed by Bush. One thing I would give credit to Obama. It was under his term that Obama was found. All he had to do was ordered it. By the way did you know Obama wanted to abort the mission three times before Hillary forced his hand to finish the mission ? Bring the home from Iraq at what price ? Iran is consolidating its hold on Iraq. What victory. 


reallife
reallife

@jmac @ReneDemonteverde "He might be on Mount Rushmore yet..."


Really, Bob? He doesn't look to be the "camper" type. Rock climbing maybe? Hiking perhaps? 


LOL



ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@mantisdragon91 Mantis dont forget that Congress inculde the Democrat run Senate. Look before you leap. The pool might have no water in it.

tkulaga
tkulaga

that if you like your plan you can keep it, you can keep your doctor, premium will not go up


Rene let me ask you something. Let's say you promise your child you will take him/her to store A on Saturday.  On Friday night your one and only car breaks down. Saturday morning you figure out you have no way to get to store A as promised.  Would that make you a liar? By your way of thinking that makes you a liar

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@mantisdragon91 How do you know ? Look Mantis, Reid and the Dims just erased the filibuster. That thin thread that still holds the civility together. If you 

enjoyed that watch what happen now and when the Republican take over.You

would not enjoy the blood bath.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

And yet it isn't the Democratic Senate that keeps trying to hold the country hostage.