WASHINGTON — Congress’ dysfunction isn’t limited to the struggle to keep a Cabinet department running without interruption.
Lawmakers couldn’t finish their work last year and it’s showing now. The leftover business could prove even more divisive than the dispute over rolling back President Barack Obama’s immigration policies on a bill providing money for the Department of Homeland Security.
Stretches of brinkmanship are certain to consume much of the legislative calendar in 2015. One critical issue is whether to increase the nation’s borrowing authority. That debate could have major repercussions for the recovering economy.
The to-do list includes forestalling a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians, preventing a cutoff of highway and transit dollars in the middle of peak construction season this summer and renewing critical parts of the Patriot Act.
There’s also a debate among Republicans, the majority on Capitol Hill, about whether to renew the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which provides credit to purchasers of U.S. exports.
“We haven’t even started talking about either one, (Medicare payments) or highways,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “So that shows how procrastinated all this is.”
Approaching are deadlines for longer-term legislation set to expire, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
A look at Capitol Hill’s leftover agenda and expiring laws that may be renewed, with an assessment of the degree of difficulty:
Doctors who participate in Medicare face a 21 percent cut in their payments at the end of March. Because of a flawed formula dating to 1997, Medicare doctors are threatened with big fee cuts almost every year. Congress has since stepped in 17 times to prevent the cuts but has failed to permanently fix the problem.
Lawmakers hope to resolve the issue once and for all this year. In the meantime, they plan a temporary fix that would buy six months or so. Shouldn’t be too difficult.
Authority to spend money from the highway trust fund expires May 31, the end of a reprieve passed last fall. The uncertainty is slowing construction in some states. A long-term fix won’t be ready by then, so the most likely solution is Congress will punt again. Even doing that requires coming up with billions of dollars to fix the short-term shortfall, which won’t be easy.
On June 30, temporary authority expires for the bank. Critics say it picks winners such as Boeing Co. and General Electric and that too little of its financing benefits small business. The bank has support from Democrats and establishment Republicans but increasingly is opposed by conservatives, who note that its subsidies for foreign purchasers of exports such as jumbo jets give foreign airlines advantages over U.S. carriers. This split clearly has the bank in danger of losing its charter. Very difficult.
The government’s borrowing authority lapses on March 15. Filing-season tax surpluses and Treasury Department accounting maneuvers could delay the need for Congress to step in until August or later. Action is mandatory or else the government would default on its obligations.
In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, used the debt limit as leverage to pry spending cuts from President Barack Obama. Since then, Obama has refused to negotiate. Last year, Boehner had to rely on Democratic votes to pass an extension. Raising it again will prove difficult, but it must be done.
Three controversial provisions expire June 1: authorizing the bulk collection of telephone records, obtaining surveillance warrants without naming the person being wiretapped, and allowing surveillance of foreigner suspected of terrorist activity but who are not affiliated with a terrorist organization. Both left and right oppose the provisions, but solid majorities are likely to back them amid the growing threat from the Islamic State group. Obama signed a four-year extension in 2011. Not too hard.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to millions of children in low-income families, expires Sept. 30. There’s pressure to renew it well before then because state legislatures are drafting their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1 in most places. A fight is unlikely because top Republicans such as GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are proposing to tighten eligibility for the program, possibly taking away insurance from many children, and roll back a scheduled increase in federal matching funds to states. Tricky, but doable.