‘Line’ Items: Lame Duck Edition

Roast (Lame) Duck is Served – The lame duck session of Congress begins today, but it is already being panned as unlikely to be very productive. As we previously noted, lawmakers face a sizable (and expensive) laundry list. With no indication that bipartisan cooperation on any of the items is likely, legislators may simply punt them to the next Congress. A meeting Wednesday between congressional leaders and President Obama will provide a signal on what can be accomplished during the session. Newly-elected members of Congress will also be in town for orientation and Republicans are expected to hold votes on whether they will ban earmarks next year.

Approps Not Apropos? – A primary reason Congress must return is because it has failed to enact any of the 12 appropriations bills to finance federal government operations; instead relying on a stopgap continuing resolution (CR) since the new fiscal year began on October 1. The current CR expires on December 3, meaning that lawmakers must agree on the spending bills before then or pass another stopgap funding measure. Legislators are still debating an appropriate spending level and nothing will be resolved until after Thanksgiving. The difficulty in funding the government highlights how dysfunctional the budget and appropriations process is in Washington, and the need for reform. Last week, the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, of which CRFB is a partner, provided detailed recommendations for fixing the budget process in a new report, Getting Back in the Black.

House Prefers the UnCOLA – According to CQ Roll Call, House leaders indicated that their first priority in the lame duck will be to pass legislation providing a $250 check to Social Security recipients as a substitute for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) since inflation has not risen above the level of the last COLA for benefit levels in 2009. CRFB has argued how this is bad policy here and here. Politico also mentioned that lawmakers will not offset the cost of the ad hoc COLA, instead using credits on the PAYGO scorecard (savings generated from other bills this year). We also noted how this would be a bad idea here. It is curious that House leaders see this as a priority over issues such as funding the government.

White House Fiscal Commission Co-Chairs Unveil Their Plan – Former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson on Wednesday released their draft plan for reducing long-term deficits. They are the co-chairs of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The plan will serve as the basis for negotiations within the panel. The group has a deadline of December 1 to submit recommendations to the President. Congressional leaders have agreed to consider recommendations that gain approval of at least 14 of the 18 commission members. CRFB commented on the Simpson-Bowles plan here and here, and remarked on the spending cut recommendations here, on the tax proposals here, and on the reactions of others here.

Things Get Fiscal in Washington – Last week was a big week for budget geeks. In addition to the Simpson-Bowles plan and the release of the Peterson-Pew Commission recommendations on reforming the budget process mentioned above, several other developments shared the fiscal policy stage. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation unveiled a new advertising campaign. The “OweNo” ads feature a fictional presidential candidate, Hugh Jidette, who promises to run up the debt and burden future generations. The Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative released a new paper, Social Security Shortfall Warrants Action Soon, by Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Charles Blahous of the Hoover Institution. The analysis from experts from opposite sides of the political spectrum underscores the need to deal with Social Security’s projected shortfall now, as opposed to waiting. The authors conclude:

Social Security faces a significant shortfall, which policy makers would be better off addressing sooner rather than later. Prompt action would reduce the risks of sudden future changes in the benefit structure, better inform current workers’ retirement planning and increase public confidence in Social Security.

In the new Peterson-Pew Commission report, Getting Back in the Black, a bipartisan group of budget experts, including former members of Congress and previous heads of the OMB and CBO, recommended major reforms, such as multi-year budgeting, adopting fiscal goals and annual targets, and automatic triggers to enforce those targets.

More ideas will come this week as the Debt Reduction Task Force, co-chaired by former Senator Pete Domenici and former CBO and OMB director Alice Rivlin, release their proposal on Wednesday.