Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Congressional Action in the Lame Duck Session

The mid-term elections in five weeks are likely to produce political deadlock. The Republicans will probably win control of the House and perhaps the Senate. The Dems have the White House. From January 2011 through December 2012, not much is likely to happen in Washington (although you'll need earplugs to save your hearing from all the partisan yammering).

As things are, Congress isn't likely to do anything significant before the elections--it's easier for a candidate to make promises to voters than explain a vote in Congress. There will be one moment for action: the lame duck session that follows the elections. In the last two months of this year, the current 111th session of Congress will have its last hurrah. The Democratic-dominated body will have one final chance to push through legislation it favors. The President will probably sign anything that vaguely serves his agenda, since he's not likely to get his way with Congress again during the remainder of his first term.

A number of Democrats facing re-election contests are momentarily wavering on their party's agenda, such as continued Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthy. After the election, though, some may be lame duck legislators, with nothing to lose by voting their convictions instead of for their survival. Others may see a last chance to serve the needs of supporters.

The Republicans will be in a tight spot. If they block all Democratic initiatives, the Bush tax cuts end on December 31, 2010, and everyone in the U.S. gets a tax increase. The Republicans won't want be tagged with responsibility for that. You can bet the Dems will introduce in the lame duck session a bill continuing the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthy. They will also introduce the annual fix for the alternative minimum tax (a tax-the-rich measure signed by Republican President Richard Nixon to make sure the wealthy didn't deduct their way to no taxes). The alternative minimum tax isn't adjusted automatically for inflation, so over time it has reached well down into the middle class. It has to be fixed every year so that it hits only the upper middle class (the alternative minimum tax now taxes many millions more than just the wealthy and is a key revenue raiser that no one, Democrat or Republican, has the guts to fix permanently because doing so would cost the government a shipload of money).

The Republicans will have to find a way not to block all tax relief, lest they betray their asserted principles. But they don't have the numbers in the 111th Congress to control legislation. Even though the Republicans squirmed and squealed noisily during the last two years, the Dems had their way with stimulus legislation, expansion of health insurance coverage, and financial regulatory reform. Neither party can afford to allow nothing to happen during the lame duck session. Alternative minimum tax relief is an annual Congressional ritual, and will be accompanied by one or more attempts to extend at least some of the Bush tax cuts. It's impossible to predict how things will turn out. But keep your eyes open because the upcoming lame duck session may be the most important legislative event of the next two years.

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