As Congress Returns, Threat of Lame Duck Session Looms

Michi Iljazi

September 2, 2016

Labor Day marks the end of the seven-week Congressional Summer recess.  With lawmakers set to return on Tuesday there are a number of things that need to get done before the election. Repealing the USDA Catfish Program should be a top priority as it’s already garnered enough bicameral and bipartisan support.  The question is whether the Republican leadership can get it together and put legislation on the floor repealing a duplicative and wasteful program. This would be the easiest vote in a very long time considering the Senate has already passed a bill to repeal and the President is ready to sign. Beyond Catfish repeal there is the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2017, sitting in conference right now awaiting a compromise bill that can pass the House and Senate and be signed by the President. Zika funding is also unfinished business that needs to be addressed. Not withstanding the importance of those issues, there is another issue that lawmakers will face in the coming weeks: how to fund the government when money runs out in September.

The country is less than a month away from another funding doomsday deadline that threatens to stop Washington dead in its tracks.  But, this time there is also the added drama of a lame duck session. The “lame duck” session refers to the period of time after an election when lawmakers convene but those retiring or have lost their re-election bid will face no accountability when voting for legislation. President Obama is a lame duck President, and can sign legislation knowing that he will be out of the White House before the ink is even dry on any bill he puts his name on. The lame duck is a dangerous time for taxpayers.

Congress has until September 30th to pass legislation that will keep the government open and avoid a shutdown on October 1st.  Members of Congress are already talking about a stop-gap measure to keep the government open.  The question remains as to how long this yet-to-be revealed stop-gap spending bill will fund the government.  House conservatives want a bill that will keep the government funded through early 2017, thus avoiding a lame duck session. GOP leaders in the Senate are angling for a shorter-term bill that would allow for a lame duck session in order to craft a larger spending bill before a new Congress convenes and a new President is sworn in next year.

The options facing lawmakers right now to fund the government do not appear to be very palatable because they each offer risks to taxpayers:

  • Funding the government through 2017 means that there is a risk the House and Senate will look different (potentially a shift in control), which means there may not be as many fiscally conservative lawmakers in Congress influencing the overall legislation.
  • Short-term funding would allow for a lame duck session that allows for a large spending bill  (likely an Omnibus spending bill) to be crafted with an outgoing President and many lawmakers who may have lost or retired passing legislation without any consequences from voters.

The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) opposes a lame-duck session because when lawmakers are not held accountable, taxpayers usually get burned. Over the last decade Congress has passed legislation during lame duck sessions that have included a massive spending bill loaded with earmarks, a tax increase, and a taxpayer funded bailout of American automobile industry in 2008. 

There is also the question of what to do with the more than $18 billion in thirty expiring tax extenders.  Tax extenders are provisions in the tax code that apply to both individuals and businesses, but they are only meant to be temporary with an expiration date. TPA has consistently called for separate votes on all tax extenders. Congress should not bundle them together because some provisions are helpful to the economy while others are not.  In fact, 16 of the 30 tax extenders (see full list here) set to expire in December are handouts to green energy subsidies, costing taxpayers more than $7 billion a year.  And, these tax extenders, are nothing more than corporate welfare.

Among the other extenders set to expire is a provision that will help accelerate a shift in the tax code toward full business expensing.  This is a provision that TPA has been supportive of because of the positive effect this will have on the ability of companies to grow and invest.

The differences in the extenders are exactly why Congress should be voting on them individually, as opposed to one vote with more than 30 different provisions that are different in size, scope, and impact. If Congress wants to deal with expiring tax extenders, they should deal with them responsibly.

The best way forward for taxpayers is for Congress to make sure that the government is funded, a lame duck session is avoided, and steps are taken to preserve a climate for getting comprehensive tax reform done in 2017. Lawmakers shouldn’t pass legislation that undermines efforts to simplify the tax code, nor should they be crafting massive spending bills loaded with earmarks.

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