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July 29, 2014

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Why Congress is under extraordinary pressure this lame duck session

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, leaves after meeting with reporters as Congress prepares to shut down until after the elections in November, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky attend a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol building on July 11, 2012, in Washington.

"Petraeus-gate" may have gripped Washington’s attention for the long weekend, but it’s back to business today as Congress regroups to rehash the business it didn’t manage to finish during the past two years.

Lawmakers have a habit of turning lame duck sessions, the period between the election and the start of the next Congress in early January, into high-stress marathons, especially during election years. Midnight sessions, working weekends and sky-is-falling sentiments are common.

Oftentimes, it happens because lame ducks are the last chance for current congressional leaders to effect legislation before they’re sidelined by a change in power.

But this year, the election left the balance of power unchanged, meaning there’s little hanging over lawmakers’ heads in the way of a political deadline.

Unless you count, oh, bearing the brunt of blame for the country’s fiscal destruction if the two sides fail to hop to it.

Congress has a number of items left to complete on its agenda, including a bill to save the Postal Service, a farm subsidy bill and maybe, just maybe, a bill to regulate online poker.

But none ranks so importantly as the onus on Congress to do something to steer the country away from the edge of a second recession, a brink now commonly known as the “fiscal cliff.”

The fiscal cliff is one part taxes, one part budget cuts. Dec. 31 is when the tax rate cuts that were put in place in the early years of President George W. Bush’s administration, and extended again in 2010, expire. It also is when a 2 percent payroll tax cut is set to expire.

Should Congress reach that expiration date without striking a deal to keep certain tax cuts in place, taxpayers at almost every income level will see their tax rates rise by 5 to 7 percentage points — 2 points of that being due to the expiration of the payroll tax cuts, which are not expected to be extended.

That alone has been enough to cause Congress serious consternation in the past. But at the same time, the government is bracing for an across-the-board cut to federal spending, thanks to a mechanism known as “sequestration.” The sequestration chop was designed by congressional leaders last summer as an incentive to lawmakers on a special “super committee” to cooperate and figure out a way to bring down the deficit. They couldn’t. So the cuts are coming.

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President Barack Obama speaks during at a campaign rally at the Cheyenne Sports Complex near the College of Southern Nevada in North Las Vegas Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

The combined force of the fiscal punch is estimated to be about $600 billion, or almost 4 percent of the national income — not something a country just coming out of recession is in good shape to sustain without incident.

But there is some dispute as to whether the fiscal cliff will be as catastrophic as it sounds. Many economists maintain that it will be more like a fiscal sloping and won’t be all that sudden.

Signs from lawmakers don’t suggest they are approaching the deadlines with any new urgency. In the days after the election, congressional leaders appeared to retreat to their familiar corners, with House Speaker John Boehner, the country’s top Republican, speaking against raising tax rates. Meanwhile, re-elected President Barack Obama said Friday that he would not accept a deal that didn’t allow tax rates on incomes over $250,000 to rise.

But if the lawmakers are unable to bridge the familiar crevasse between budget cuts and tax rates for the sake of avoiding the fiscal cliff, there is a fail-safe incentive: Right around the time all of these financial forces are expected to strike, the country is expected to run into the debt ceiling.

Yes, the pesky debt limit that almost pitched the country into chaos last summer and did result in at least the partial, marginal lowering of the United States’ credit rating is back, rearing its head. Ironically, last summer’s debt ceiling deal is where this whole fiscal cliff mess started: Congressional action is required to raise the debt limit, but because lawmakers — particularly Republicans — would not agree to raise the limit without some trade-off, the parties struck the deal on cuts that have turned into one-half of the burdensome fiscal cliff scenario.

If the country does hit the fiscal cliff this time, the incline of the drop-off versus slope won’t be the urgent question. It will be whether the federal government should cover its foreign debts or its obligations to veterans. Whether it should keep up with its Medicare and Social Security bills or simply stop issuing paychecks to soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

The threat of such a financial impasse is what ultimately drove lawmakers last summer to put aside their differences and pass compromise legislation that put the fiscal cliff in motion. Now, as the fiscal cliff is about to take effect, it may prove to be what brings them to the table again to strike a more final compromise before the end of 2012.

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  1. Enjoyed the article, Karoun.

    Yes, indeed, these times try the politicians of this country. But I say the pressure on the Tea/Republican do nothings needs to be amped up even higher. Of course the Democrats in power feel pressure too, but not as much as the other side of the aisle.

    Democrats have stuck to their principles and know what they want. And they now have the political leverage.

    The Tea/Republicans in Congress are now in a quandary. They have to pick either one of two choices....

    (1) Sit down and have frank discussions, bound and determined to negotiate and legislate; to get something done.

    or

    (2) Let their ultra-conservative media dictate how they should lead, going back down that path from before; along with the failed policy of continuing to obstruct, filibuster, do nothing, stand in the way of any and all progress, and basically voting no on pretty much everything.

    Your choice, Tea/Republicans.

    You ask me, it's a no brainer.

    Either lead or get out the way.

    You pick choice (2) above, the American people, in the next election, are going to MAKE you get out the way. And put people in power that can do what they are elected to do. And not live in a perpetual ultra-conservative clown show and always play to the peanut gallery all the time.

    End game time too. Because one choice will show that there actually still exists sane conservatism. The other choice assures the absolute and utter destruction of the entire Tea/Republican Party. Not from voters. But caused by themselves.

    Like I say... Your choice, Tea/Republicans. It starts not later. It starts NOW. Show the American people you are capable of doing something. Anything.

  2. Go over the cliff then legislate fixes with the new congress. If the Grand Obstructionist Party does not raise the debt limit shut down government. Shutting down government woke up the obstructionists in the Clinton administration, it will work again. The American people know exactly who is obstructing progress.

  3. Manufactured stress to pretend to the voting public that they are doing something. Congress created the fiscal cliff. Payroll tax cuts were/are insane. Getting more of the public to accept cuts, trims, fine-tuning various programs.... Now every representative will be able to say, s/he had to be bipartisan and concede some things to...blah, blah, blah. We CANNOT keep spending more than revenue period. Continuing with short-term stop-gap measures means our economy cannot get back on its feet.

  4. Hold the Press!

    We are talking about four percent as being a cliff; four percent isn't even a pothole. Why do we continue to be lead astray by the press or politicians?

    The change that is needed will come when America wakes up and realizes that charlatans have infiltrated our government and have been stealing everything we have via bills with riders.

    I am not pro "line item veto"per-say, but we need to give the President some way of direct accountability. I understand the possibility of great harm that may be waged by the stroke of a pen if the President were to be of malice or ill content with a party or a group; I just see no other way of holding accountability to one office. That office being the President none higher nor should there be who should be directly responsible for the direction the country takes. The fact that there are checks and balances still in effect make this more viable than ever in our history today.

    Initially this is what President Obama wanted to do with a "blue ribbon panel" to review line by line, removing excessive legacy pork but old money has been actively hindering any progress as aggressively as was the case with President Clinton when Congress shut down our government then.

  5. I just love the repugs that post here. I get such a belly laugh from their posts. Same old right wing crap. If these people are job creator's, where are the jobs they created. I'm still waiting to see some facts and figures on the number of jobs these tax cuts have created. The only compromise the righties know is that you do it our way, you on the left don't count. I'm so sick and tired of the right forcing their obstructionism on the 70%. If we go over the cliff, so what.

  6. Rewriting the tax code to fit this terrible economy. Everyone voted for it whether Democrat or Republican. We all pretty much have sat back thinking a miracle would come down from heaven. We have spent a good 12 years dreaming. Now it is time to get to work and fix the economy. This nation doesn't have another four years to waste and find out nothing has changed in the way O'Bama won.