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August 23, 2014

As Congress Returns for 9-Week Slog, 5 Areas Are Ripe for Compromise

Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.

The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.

But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.

After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.

That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.

But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.

Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months:

Spending: Optimism has vanished about getting all dozen appropriations bills cleared by the start of the fiscal year, a hallmark of regular order last achieved 20 years ago. But a record early start to the process, thanks to the agreement on the $1.014 trillion spending grand total sealed last year, has created a realistic expectation that at least a handful of the measures will be enacted à la carte before November, which last happened during Barack Obama’s first year as president.

The House is on course to pass its first two fiscal 2015 bills this week: $71.5 billion for military construction and veterans programs, and $3.3 billion for the legislative branch (except the Senate, which gets to propose its own budget.) Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., wants to get the other 10 bills through the House by the end of June. Across the Capitol, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., has been promised two weeks of floor time in June and two more in July, so she can push for Senate passage of some stand-alone bills for the first time in three years.

Because the spending levels are locked in and mostly unchanged from this year (and because other policymaking bills will be few and far between) the main challenge for these chairmen is shielding their measures from contentious policy riders that might stop them in their tracks — on such hot-button matters as telephone records surveillance, terrorism suspect treatment, gun control, immigration, environmental regulation and, of course, Obamacare.

Housing: An acid test comes Tuesday for the long-shot drive to overhaul the housing finance system. The Senate Banking Committee will take up a bipartisan bill that would retain an explicit federal backstop behind the mortgage market, something many Republicans want to do away with, while eventually getting rid of mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — as well as their mission to promote affordable housing, something many Democrats hold dear.

The compromise looks to have the 12 votes necessary for approval, but a bigger majority will be needed for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to schedule a floor debate. And it would take a lopsided bipartisan vote for passage to generate any interest from the House GOP leadership, because their members are solidly in favor of getting the government out of the home loan business.

Patents: Another crucial Senate markup on a carefully calibrated bipartisan compromise is planned for May 1 in the Judiciary Committee. It would crack down on a dull-sounding problem that’s bedeviling business innovation: The surge in frivolous litigation alleging patent infringements.

To spice things up a bit, the entities who file the lawsuit have been dubbed “patent trolls.” They seek to make money by purchasing patents without any interest in making a product or providing a service — then suing companies with deep pockets and incentives to settle quickly, often by paying a licensing fee to the troll. The challenge has been devising changes in the civil litigation system that make life more difficult for the trolls (who tend to prey on software and technology companies) without hobbling legitimate companies (pharmaceutical makers, especially) trying to combat genuine patent infringements

A solid bipartisan vote in committee might pave the way for speedy passage and then accord with the House, which passed its version of the bill with 325 votes in December. The White House is eager to help broker a deal before the election, so Obama can say he did something prominent this year to help the business community.

Energy: As soon as this week, the Senate will take up legislation with potential to embody something highly unusual in an election year: a bipartisan deal to change energy policy.

The scope of the measure, which has been on the drawing board longer than three years, remains modest. It would seek to improve the nation’s energy efficiency through modest grants to states and cities for drafting stricter building codes, incentives for manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints and the creation of energy-savings guidelines for federal buildings. Sponsors Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, believe they have sufficient votes to ward off all extraneous or poison-pill amendments — even now that Shaheen’s re-election contest has grown more competitive, which might tempt some GOP senators to scuttle the measure so she’s denied a legislative triumph during the campaign.

If the bill passes in its current form, a lobbying effort will intensify to persuade the GOP House to embrace it.

Taxes: With a comprehensive rewrite and simplification of the IRS rulebook shelved for the year, lawmakers have committed themselves to once again reviving and extending a dog’s breakfast of niche tax benefits. (For businesses, there are broad breaks for corporate research and development along with investing in new business equipment — and narrow breaks for horse owners and race tracks. For individuals, there are tax breaks for paying college tuition, making energy-efficient home improvements and commuting by subway or bicycle.)

In the coming month, the Senate will debate a package extending more than four dozen provisions through the end of next year, at a 10-year cost to the Treasury of about $85 billion. That’s the customary route for the “extenders” — a hodgepodge designed so that a lawmaker committed to one narrow provision has to vote for them all. But retiring Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., aspires to do the opposite — move every extension as a rifle-shot bill (but with no expiration date) so that advocates for every break must assemble their own House majority.

That could take a while. But all lawmakers know full well that much of the year’s heaviest legislative lifting and biggest breakthroughs will inevitably be postponed until the lame-duck session that starts Nov. 12, eight days after the election, and might well continue until close to Christmas.

  • Henry Vargashie

    I have a recommendation for anybody who wants one. Throw away your suit, cash in your chips, go to the website Gold Trading Academy and learn how to trade and then move to South East Asia and live a life that you never dreamed you could live. That’s what I am doing now and very happy instead of being in fear all the time and stressed.

    • Jack Everett

      Do you also prostitute for Bachmann?

  • Henry Vargashie

    Don’t make the same mistake I did and try to trade the Forex market that is a losing market for sure. Go to the website Gold Trading Academy, that’s where I went now I’m trading the futures market which is so much better than the Forex. Trading the futures I’ve not had a losing week yet and I’m getting better and better at it.

  • Jack Everett

    That means they will have 18 days in office to take care of personal business on the public dime.

  • http://ndgoon.blogspot.com/ Goon’s ND Redneck

    I wish they would stop with trying to ram through Shamnesty.

  • drthomasedavis

    At what point in their between vacations time does this ineffectual, lackadaisical. family business finally get serious? When, if ever, does the House acting as a committee of the whole decide to behead the snake; impeach and then indict Obama and Holder for their Fast and Furious debacle, try both for conspiracy, treason and murder? How about the daily double? In addition to Fast and Furious, Impeach Obama for his unauthorized attack on Libya? better yet, the trifecta cary out the first two and then indict,try and then hang Obama, Clinton, and Panetta for Treason, Murder, Perjury and misprision of a felony. Then and only then can you get down to some really serious business. Congress has a legal obligation to do the people’s business before their own, i.e. trying to keep their job by campaigning on our dime. Have you, as the most dysfunctional assemblage in our history, lost the ability to feel no shame? Of course, I am casting a wide net, Trey Gowdy is confronting some of the worst malefactors, asking pertinnt quwstions and pinning incompetent functionaries to the mat. Darrell Issa appears to be posturing, Elijah Cummings is the designted interference. There is an attitude of, “Take it easy, I may be next!” Not if you are effective, honest and persistent. Lack of progress seems to have taken the fight out of Michele Bachmann and Cynthia Lummis. Boehner simply never had the willl to go “Rough and Tumble.” Harry Reid acts like the incompetent, bullying sheriff when he is actually “Mush.”

    Deficate or get off the pot!

    Dr. Thomas E. Davis, Colonel, USA (ret)

  • dmfarooq

    What an expensive , inefficient and insensitive institution the U. S. Congress has become lately ! There are extra ordinary problems in this particular instance . The tax payers are being coerced to pay $174,000 a year, including benefits , and for several vacations , breaks , travels and per diem etc . no questions asked , about either their work hours , and productivity . Both substantially declined for Congress , if compared with Congress of a decade or two ago. It is hard for any business to allow an institution like Congress to continue with their work . It is about time that responsible public interest groups should focus on Congress sooner than later.

  • Liberalism is Nonsense

    Since liberty depends upon morality, liberty cannot survive where majority opinion favours the immoral plunder of some in the names of fairness, progress, and social justice for others.

    • Jack Everett

      “And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government or information to the people. This last is the most
      legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of
      people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace
      and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high
      degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure
      reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” -
      Thomas Jefferson – (1743-1826), US Founding Father,

  • The Roadster

    As we are seeing more today, nefarious quacks have begun to argue that there is no need to limit the power of government officials because they have been chosen through democratic processes.

    • Jack Everett

      Their is no democratic process involved in corporate vote buying.

  • YONATAN C

    The republican party has done itself a huge disservice by blocking the passing of the extension bill in the senate. considering that there are over 2.6 million people directly affected by this bill, they have single handedly handed the opposition party 2.6 million votes in the coming election. These people are angry and will remember which political party failed them, and had refused to help them. Many “former” republicans like myself, will not vote for their party again after this situation. The republicans have clearly demonstrated who they are working for, and it’s not for the average American. The republicans are for big business and pleasing their true constituents “their lobbyists” which support them. The American people have seen the republican party in it’s true light, and will vote their conscience in the coming election. Senator Boehner and all his reoublican cronnies best enjoy their jobs for now, because many of them will not be in office in the future

    • Jack Everett

      Republicans have been beating them self since the new deal created the middle class.

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