In a week, after the Election Day dust settles, we'll have elected a new Congress. There's a lot of debate about what the coming 112th Congress will actually do once installed. Some predict a turn to the right, which seems a sure thing, will actually open up space for Washington to govern, since Republicans will have a diminished incentive for total obstruction. Others offer that the Republican's election successes will bring only more rancor and gridlock. Many progressives fear both scenarios.
Democrats may tack even further to the right in an effort to cooperate with the suddenly engaged and empowered Republicans. Think Bill Clinton, the Gingrich Congress and welfare reform. On the other hand, if Republicans continue to block everything the Democrats attempt and Democrats now return the favor, we'll have another two years of doing little to help normal people.
A Budget or a Shutdown
In the immediate, the lame duck Congress that returns after the election will face a set of pressing, politically volatile questions, most of which legislators punted during the pre-election season. Not least of them is passing a budget.
Before leaving for recess, Congress voted on a stop-gap measure to keep the government running and now it'll have to pass a real budget. If lawmakers fail to do so by the end of the year, the government will shut down altogether. That sounds crazy, but it's exactly what happened the last time Republicans took Congress when a Democrat was in the White House. Republicans originally made noises welcoming another such standoff--an odd choice given how badly they paid for it last time. More recently, the man who hopes to become House majority leader, John Boehner, affirmed his commitment to passing a budget, telling the National Journal, "our goal is to cut the size of the government, not to shut it down."
So, once the budget's been passed, it'll be on to what's certain to be a massive fight about how to cut the deficit and on whose back it gets done.
Bush's Tax Cuts and Social Security
First up, the Bush-era tax cuts. The cuts expire at the end of the year and if Congress does not extend them, they'll go away, returning taxes to 2001 levels. Most Republicans want a full extension of the cuts, including those for the wealthiest Americans, though there were signs before recess that Boehner might be open to compromising with Democrats. The president wants to get rid of the cuts only for individuals making more than $200,000 and for families making more than $250,000.
The Bush tax cuts were the single largest contributor to the pre-recession deficit, which makes all the conservative deficit fear mongering that we're about to get to pretty disingenuous.
At some point soon, President Obama's 18-member deficit commission will present Congress with a plan for dealing with Social Security. The president has vowed to veto any bill that privatizes the program, so we'll likely see proposals to adjust the program marginally while leaving it the same structurally. If these adjustments include an increase in the age at which people qualify, there should and will be a fight.
Raising the retirement age will force elderly folks to work longer and imperil families that rely on Social Security for basics. Twenty million people, and at least a million kids, are lifted out of poverty by the program. And people of color and women are more likely to need to rely on it.
With or without the commission's proposals, the deficit is going to be the hot issue in both the lame duck session and the 112th Congress. Unemployment insurance is likely to be an early target of deficit hawks when Democrats try to extend the benefit again next month. If the fight looks anything like it did last summer, which it very well could, it's going to be a bruising, time consuming battle.
The current extension lasts until Nov. 30. If it's not extended again, hundreds of thousands of jobless folks who have been unemployed for longer than 99 weeks will lose support. Some of them will be thrust into desperation right around the holidays. Unemployment is resting consistently at about 9.5 percent, and it's much higher in many communities. No one expects it to come down anytime soon.
Jobless benefits are made all the more important by the fact that Congress probably won't do anything meaningful to stimulate job growth in the next session. The 2009 stimulus is going to start drying up soon and most people will still be living in what feels like a recession. Many economists are clear that another stimulus injection is necessary, especially in the form of a jobs bill. But Republicans have refused to support any additional stimulus or jobs programs even as they stump across their districts talking about jobs.
Immigration is another place where Republicans are likely to block movement.
Sen. Dick Durbin has said he'll push a vote on the DREAM Act in the lame duck session. The bill, which failed last session, would open a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people who graduate from college or serve in the military. Some are hopeful that the post-election atmosphere will pull a couple Republicans back to supporting the DREAM Act.
But few seriously think that a full comprehensive immigration reform package will move at all in the lame duck--or, for that matter, before 2012.
Dems' Promises: Food Stamps, Green Jobs and More
Conspicuously absent from the 112th Congress' likely to-do list is an effort to restore funds to the food stamp program, which took a hit last summer to offset other spending. A family of four will have its monthly food assistance reduced by close to $60 at the end of 2013. This, at a time of both record poverty and record hunger. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and others have vowed to restore the funding before then, by finding offsets elsewhere. We'll keep you updated on what happens there.
And few think a progressive climate-change bill will pass a more conservative Congress, especially after the outgoing Congress failed to get anything done. If a climate bill does pass, it's unlikely to include a cap and trade provision and will surely be a melted down version of itself. We're still awaiting the green jobs revolution so many hoped for back in 2008.
Education will, however, be on the docket in the 112th Congress. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, once called No Child Left Behind, will need to be reauthorized in some form. Whatever Congress passes will include an increased dose of testing and funding tied to test performance, policy initiatives which Obama's already outlined in his administration's competitive grants program, Race to the Top.
Congressional Democrats have listed a slew of other bills they'd like to push through the lame duck session as well. There's no chance they'll get it all done. Alexander Bolton lists them all over at The Hill.
Republican Vows: Repeal Everything
Then there's the stuff the Republicans say they'll do, some of which was included in Boehner's "Pledge to America," which purported to be the Republicans' plan for governance.
Speaking to CNN last month, Boehner explained:
Let's bring all the unspent stimulus money back. You know, the stimulus was supposed to create jobs in America and it hasn't. It was supposed to keep unemployment low and it hasn't. Let's take all the unspent stimulus money, bring it back to the Treasury and help pay down the debt.
In other words, he'd end all existing economic stimulus programs, which would surely increase unemployment.
Many Republicans and Tea Party candidates (they've become rather indistinguishable) put the repeal of health care reform at the core of their battle plan. They won't be able to do that, but what they can do is defund the programs that healthcare reform created. So, for example, a Republican Congress could try to cut funding for subsidies for people who can't afford health care. And funding for community health clinics is also in question. As I reported last month:
Community health clinics, which have received billions of dollars in aid from the health care bill, may be one of the few places where those who lack access to health coverage can access care. Clinics function as safety net providers, and when people really need health care, that's where they go.
But if the GOP gains control of Congress, even these provisions may be in danger, along with three and a half years worth of future changes.
Boehner and others also have called for a repeal of the bill that created the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The Agency regulates the home mortgage and credit card industries and the derivatives market. Republicans have assaulted it. Like a repeal of health care reform, Obama would block it with a veto, but it may take up some time and space on the floor nontheless.
Meanwhile, many Republicans, notably including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former immigration reform supporter Sen. Lyndsay Graham, are maintaining their nauseating calls to revoke birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. McConnell told The Hill that Congress "ought to take a look at" changing the 14th Amendment. He and others have called for hearings on the matter once the 112th Congress begins work.
More will come down the line, including a fight over campaign finance reform in the White House's effort to counter the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which broadly expanded the ability of corporations to fund campaigns. And the war in Afghanistan is still raging, with its end as yet undefined.
All Eyes on the White House
How, exactly, all of this plays out will depend on who wins on Tuesday--and by how much. But what's clear is the next two years are sure to be painful to watch and hard to live through. Political prognosticators uniformly predict something between a Republican landslide and a narrow Democratic escape, which would leave the House and likely the Senate stuck in gridlock. And that means one thing above all else: Attention will be focused like never before on President Obama himself, who can get a lot done administratively and without Congress. Or, who can choose not to use that power.
The elections on Tuesday matter. We'll be watching and reporting back to you.