By Alexander Bolton - 04/17/12 09:00 AM EDT
Business groups are exasperated that Congress has made little progress on issues they see as vital in helping the ailing economy.
Industry leaders are lashing out at both parties for shifting into campaign mode with more than 200 days to go before the November election.
For example, they are perplexed that Congress has no immediate plans to extend 60 tax provisions that expired at the end of last year. The transportation authorization bill, traditionally one of the easiest bills to pass in Congress, has become stalled by an internecine fight in the House, and energy legislation, another priority, is not likely to come up in the Senate because Democratic leaders want to shield vulnerable colleagues from casting difficult votes on Environmental Protection Agency regulations and oil-and-gas drilling.
“It’s driving everyone crazy that 60 provisions of the tax code expired last December 31 and 41 more are slated to expire this year,” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives from the nation’s biggest corporations.
“The government is underperforming,” he said.
Engler said CEOs in his association don’t have the “luxury of being able to say, ‘We’ll put this off until after we have an election, we’ll put this off until next year until we see who the new people will be.’ ”
He added, “They cannot do that and don’t feel that’s appropriate if it’s being done in Washington.”
Part of the problem is that there is a split between industry groups and Tea Party activists, who are wary of bills with large price tags — even if their costs are offset.
The lack of action even on normally routine matters has sowed confusion in the private sector over what to expect as businesses put together long-term plans.
“Businesses want to know what their taxes will be next year. They don’t know,” said Amanda Austin, director of federal public policy at the National Federation of Independent Business.
“It’s generally frustrating that we have not been able to move things along,” she said. “It’s a huge election year — [that’s] not an excuse in our opinion. There’s work to be done. It’s a challenge.”
The Senate passed only 90 public laws last year, the fewest since 1995, when it passed 88, according to a report of congressional activity compiled by the secretary of the Senate. The number of measures passed was one of the lowest totals in two decades, as well.
Authorizations bills that attracted strong bipartisan support in years past have become pitched battles. The House will soon vote on the ninth short-term extension of the transportation authorization bill. The Federal Aviation Administration shut down temporarily last year because of a Senate-House standoff.
Veteran lawmakers and business leaders were surprised last month when a bill reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), which was last authorized by unanimous consent, failed to muster the necessary 60 votes to advance.
Corporate executives are making visits to Capitol Hill to convince lawmakers that foreign competitors receive export financing from their governments and that U.S. firms would be put at a disadvantage without the bank’s help.
Aric Newhouse, senior vice president for government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, said Congress should move immediately to grant President Obama authority to negotiate trade agreements.
“Our international competition is having those conversations as we speak,” he said. “We’re sitting on the sidelines, we think that’s a mistake.”
He said a “comprehensive energy bill that supports American energy exploration” is also “key to manufacturers.”
The House is expected to act on several oil-and-gas exploration bills later this year, but they are unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Democratic Policy Committee, blamed Republicans for the lack of progress on transportation, immigration, extended tax breaks and the Ex-Im Bank stalemate.
“It was Democrats who wanted to get tax extenders in the payroll tax bill and Republicans wanted them out,” he said. “Republicans in the Senate abandoned the Ex-Im reauthorization. We had 60 votes for authorization.”
Fallon said Senate GOP leaders derailed the bank authorization to temporarily spare House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) the headache of having to reconcile a fight among House Republicans over corporate subsidies.
A House Republican leadership aide noted that the lower chamber has passed nearly 30 jobs bills that have stalled in the Senate.
Business groups say the Senate’s failed vote Monday on the “Buffett Rule,” which would raise taxes on households earning more than a million dollars per year, is the type of political messaging vote that is not helpful to the needs of the business community.
Bruce Josten, the executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the business community instead wants to see the orderly passage of appropriations bills to quell the danger of a possible government shutdown, as well as regulatory reform.
“Right now it seems to me that we’re in kind of a political messaging campaign where both sides are focused on wooing voters and trying to gain the upper hand going into the elections for negotiations after the election,” said Josten, who said the focus is on “messaging, not legislating.”
The Chamber is focused on passing smaller bills, such as expanded travel access for foreign tourists and business visitors and granting green cards to immigrants trained in engineering and math.
Congressional leaders have pushed the biggest decisions over the federal budget, spending and taxes to the two-month lame-duck session following Election Day.
“The big issue is whether or not there’s an opportunity for a deal or a train wreck come during the lame duck,” said Josten. “Many people are saying it could be the most labor intensive lame duck we have.”
Industry officials say the nation will be facing a $5.4 trillion tax increase if Congress fails to take any action on tax policy before the end of the year.
Engler is skeptical Congress will come together to legislate in any dramatic fashion in the lame-duck session in November and December.
“We’ve talked about these cans getting kicked down the road. They used to be cans, now they’re 55-gallon drums and the road is getting pretty crowded with cans. You’re putting a lot of faith in a historically unproductive time. Lame-duck sessions are not covered in glory when you look back at past congressional history.”