Congress Back in Action… Or Not

January 18, 2012

The House and Senate are making their way back to D.C. this week and next with largely symbolic votes leading up to their annual retreats. The House Republican and Democratic retreats will begin this Thursday, Jan. 19 while the Senate Democrats and Republicans will hold their retreats the following week, Jan. 26 to 28. Both Republicans and Democrats will use these retreats to rally lawmakers, outline legislative goals and develop messaging in anticipation of the 2012 elections.

Interestingly, two new polls out this week show Congress at its lowest approval rating in nearly 40 years. One poll from ABC News/Washington Post shows 84 percent of respondents disapprove of how Congress is handling its job and the other poll, from CNN/ORC International shows 86 percent disapprove of Congress.

Among the key items of business likely to be addressed early in this second session of the 112th Congress are: an increase to the debt ceiling; tax extenders, including the payroll tax; unemployment benefits; funding of the Federal Aviation Administration; a highway and energy bill; and legislation to prohibit insider trading by Members of Congress.

The House is set to vote today on a request by President Barack Obama to add $1.2 trillion to the $15.2 trillion debt, with disapproval the likely outcome. Under the terms of the August debt-ceiling deal, the debt will increase unless the Senate and Obama go along with the House disapproval, which is unlikely to happen. Several conservative Republicans have said the debt-ceiling vote will just be a reminder of the failure in August to get on a path to a balanced budget.

Just before Congress left Washington at the end of last year they approved a two-month extension for a payroll tax cut. Unless Congress takes further action individuals will only have the benefit of the reduced payroll tax reduction through Feb. 29. It is likely Congress will pass a full-year extension of the payroll tax holiday, and address unemployment benefits and Medicare payments for doctors before they expire at the end of February. The 20-member bipartisan panel of lawmakers charged with reconciling the House and Senate bills will not likely meet until the Senate returns to Washington next week, at which time, they begin to resolve the differences on this issue.

While, for all intents and purposes, lawmakers are on a never-ending election cycle, the fact that we now are less than 11 months away from the 2012 elections will prove an even greater stalemate than it did in the last few months. However, there are two major deadlines facing lawmakers: the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of 2012 and $1.2 trillion in spending cuts—half of which are in defense spending—will kick in starting in January 2013 as a result of the Super Committee’s failure to develop a proposal for broad deficit reduction.

Unfortunately, many experts—and even lawmakers themselves—have stated the likelihood that, other than the payroll tax, most issues will be punted to after the election in a lame-duck session of Congress. This is partially due simply to the fact that lawmakers will spend more time in their home states and districts campaigning and fundraising given the high stakes in this election.

Control of both chambers hangs in the balance—something of which Democrats and Republicans are keenly aware. To flip control of the House, Democrats would need to pick up 25 seats and Republicans in the Senate would need to gain just four seats. Senate Democrats have 23 seats up for election this year while Republicans only have 10 open seats.

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