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.

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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.

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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.

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