‘Line’ Items: Talking Turkey Edition

Talking Turkey – Congress takes a break this week for Thanksgiving. Lawmakers can be thankful for the brief respite, but the time is quickly coming when they can no longer speak in sound bites and generalities on fiscal matters and must get down to business. When they return next week they will have to face up to some deadlines, promises, and reality.

McConnell Gets Off the Omnibus – One deadline facing Congress is the December 3rd date when the current continuing resolution expires. Legislators must either pass another stopgap measure or enact the appropriations bills to fund government operations by then. Senate leaders have been working on an omnibus bill rolling up all twelve spending bills into one massive piece of legislation, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last week seemingly put the brakes on the omnibus when he declared he would not support it. This likely means another continuing resolution will be required, perhaps into next year. Congress has failed to enact any of the bills to finance the government for the fiscal year that began October 1; the latest example of how dysfunctional the budget and appropriations process in Washington is. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform recently unveiled detailed recommendations for reforming the process in the report, Getting Back in the Black.

Ideas Keep Coming – Another looming deadline in Washington is the December 1st date by which the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform must report its recommendations. If 14 of the 18 members of the panel agree on a proposal, congressional leaders have promised to consider it. Policymakers have no dearth of ideas to work from in considering how to put the country on a sustainable fiscal course. Many have heeded CRFB’s calls to get specific. Last week the Deficit Reduction Task Force unveiled a plan, as did Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the president’s commission, who presented a progressive alternative to the plan offered recently by the commission’s co-chairs. Other progressive plans are expected at the end of the month. CRFB President Maya MacGuineas developed a plan with Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution. Check out our ongoing Let’s Get Specific series. The question is: Will all these ideas inform a constructive dialogue that produces real solutions; or, like with the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner overload, will policymakers take a nap and make lots of turkey sandwiches afterwards?

Promises to Keep – Many of the newly-elected members of Congress successfully campaigned on promises of fiscal responsibility and reducing the federal budget deficit and last week lawmakers took largely symbolic steps. Senate Republicans approved nonbinding resolutions within their caucus to cut spending to 2008 levels; ban earmarks and encourage Democrats to do the same; support a balanced budget amendment; freeze hiring of non-security federal employees; and cancel about $12 billion in unspent stimulus funds. House Republicans voted to continue their moratorium on earmarks. And a bipartisan group of senators led by Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John McCain (R-AZ), Mark Udall (D-CO), and Tom Coburn (R-OK) will attempt to force a vote on the Senate floor for a Senate-wide earmark ban. As CRFB wrote in a blog last week, earmark reform represents a good symbolic step, but won’t reduce the deficit. These recent actions are just the appetizers; lawmakers will have to get down to carving the turkey soon.

‘Poll’-ar Opposites? – Public opinion on what to do about the deficit is not bringing much clarity to the debate. A recent poll sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation found that 72 percent of those surveyed believe it is “very important” that “the next Congress take steps to reduce the national debt.” On the other hand, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated that voters are not enthusiastic about the specific ideas put forth by Erksine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the White House fiscal commission. Kind of like those who want to lose weight, but eat whatever they want over the holidays.

Setting the Table for Tax Reform? – Incoming House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) last week promised to launch a battle for fundamental tax reform. He took particular aim at reducing tax expenditures and said that tax reform could play a significant role in reducing the deficit. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner also called for tax reform, and Politico reported that the two met last week. [Update: Greg Mankiw also singles out tax expenditures for reform in the New York Times] Also, former White House and Treasury official, Glenn Hubbard, called for reform as well. Check out CRFB’s paper on tax expenditures.

Who is Coming to Dinner? – It is becoming clear who will be the key players in fiscal policy in the next Congress. Last week it was announced that Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) will be the Ranking Member on the House Budget Committee. He will be the counterpart to incoming Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) decided to keep his post; he had been contemplating taking the reins of the Agriculture Committee. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is set to be the Ranking Member. And Jacob Lew was officially confirmed last week to be the next director of the Office of Management and Budget after Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) withdrew her hold on his nomination over unrelated objections to the administration’s moratorium on offshore oil drilling.

Docs Get Short-Term Fix; Unemployed Still Hanging – The Senate approved a one-month extension of the “doc fix’ preventing a steep reduction in Medicare payments to physicians. While the $1 billion cost is paid for, we noted last week that the offset represented something of a gimmick. The House failed to extend expanded unemployment benefits for three months, which also expire at the end of this month. Agreeing on offsets continues to complicate progress on those and many other issues.