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Legislative Updates: March 2012


Capitol Call

Last month, a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was the guest speaker at a briefing held by law firm Covington & Burling entitled "What to Expect in the 112th Congress." In his opening remarks he said he had expected the room to be empty because no one expects anything to come from Congress this year. He was kidding of course, but he did have a salient point. Most observers of Congress expect the legislative output to slow to a trickle as the year wears on, as neither party shows any desire to take controversial votes during an election year.

Congress' lack of productivity is nothing new; much electronic ink has been spilled about the rancor in the legislative branch. But the aide departed from his Republican talking points and provided the audience with an unusual display of candor when he said that the lowest common denominator will prevail this year, meaning that whatever is easiest to pass, will pass.

He expects short-term extensions over total overhauls and controversial decisions delayed until after the November elections. That said, he listed a few things that must be reauthorized or extended in 2012. They include:

  • SAFETEA-LU, the Highway Bill, which expires on March 31. The House and Senate are trying to compromise on a two year extension, but many expect a short-term extension to be approved prior to its expiration in order to prevent a gap in funding.
  • The Farm Bill expires in the fall. Because House conservatives disagree with the current farm policy, it will be difficult to pass a long-term extension of this bill. Another short-term extension is more likely.
  • The Bush-era tax cuts and extenders expire at the end of the year. Since neither party wants to be responsible for raising taxes on virtually all Americans, the tax cuts will likely be extended at some point during the lame-duck session after the November elections and before the Presidential Inauguration.
  • The Export-Import Bank of the U.S. must be reauthorized by May 31. The bank has been around since 1934 but is still divisive, with business groups supporting it as a cost-effective source for business loans while many conservative lawmakers believe that the bank subsidizes businesses that should be competing on the open market instead of relying on a government program. However, it is expected to be reauthorized because it turns a profit on the loans it guarantees.
  • The debt ceiling will also have to be increased by the end of the year. Expect this tough vote to be also taken in the lame-duck session.
  • Cybersecurity legislation is not a must-pass, but it is in a good position to be enacted this year. The two parties are currently working out the differences in their respective legislative proposals.

With the elections eight months away, the above list shows a rather light schedule. But in the 2012 Washington reality, eight months devoted to fewer than 10 legislative topics is neither surprising nor unwelcome. Members of both parties believe equally that, if they are in charge, next year will be the time for them to fix all the mistakes the other party has made during the 112th Congress. This year is quickly becoming a lost cause, much to the consternation of some, the delight of others and the bemusement of the majority of Americans, who have bestowed upon this Congress its current 9 percent approval rating.

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