This week, Congress returns to Washington with a plethora of work with very little time. There are approximately 50 legislative days before the August recess and fewer than 100 before the end of the session.
As April comes to a close, five critical issues fall into one of three procedural categories – two must pass soon, one should pass shortly thereafter, and two could be resolved before the end of the year. But importantly, all will require bipartisan support.
Congress must pass an extension of the federal government’s funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2017 and an increase to the debt limit. The current continuing resolution (CR) expires on April 28th. The initial deadline for addressing the debt ceiling came and went over a month ago; however, using what is commonly referred to as “extraordinary measures,” the Administration and Congress may have until mid-summer before the financial crisis hits.
It is highly unlikely that either of these measures can pass without some level of Democratic support. Yet, to date, there has been little or no outreach to seek the bipartisan consensus that will be needed.
The “should pass” legislative priority, an infrastructure bill, has enormous potential for bipartisan support for all the commonly cited reasons – jobs, economic stimulus, and overwhelming national support.
Yet the most compelling reason is the urgent need for a 21st century infrastructure framework.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the state of our infrastructure a “D+,” and now calculates that our nation has a ten-year, two trillion dollar investment deficit. Simply put, we cannot afford to delay infrastructure rehabilitation and construction any longer.
Again, bipartisanship will be critical to this effort, and Democrats seem willing to come to the table to get it done.
The “could pass” issues will require the biggest leap from current Republican legislative practice. Both health care reform and tax reform could still be enacted this year, but to do so will require that House and Senate leadership acknowledge lessons learned from past reform efforts.
Most importantly, as we have seen these past seven years with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), unless both parties are invested in a law, there can be little expectation that it will be permanent. Indeed, the same has proven true with tax reform. The last time we passed major tax reform was in 1986. While the tax code has been amended well over 10,000 times since then, comprehensive reform only passed thirty years ago because everyone was at the table, including President Reagan. Meaningful and lasting reform will require engaging Democrats.
With regard to health care, there are a handful of issues that must be resolved to restore the individual health insurance market and maintain the progress made with the passage of the ACA in 2010.
First, there is general consensus among policymakers, thought leaders, and industry that cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies must continue. These payments are vital to ensuring that millions of Americans maintain their health insurance.
An adequate risk sharing framework is also necessary. Republicans should look to the tools they overwhelmingly supported with the passage of the Medicare Advantage and prescription drug programs, which have proven successful. Without adequate risk sharing, insurers will lack the certainty needed to continue to participate in the individual marketplace.
We must also ensure that all Americans have some form of health insurance coverage and insurers are operating under the same rules. Without these safeguards, the marketplace will become fragmented, only those in poor health will purchase coverage, premiums will continue to skyrocket, and a “death spiral” becomes certain.
Finally, for Democrats to participate in reform efforts, debate on fundamental changes to Medicaid must be postponed. Drastic cuts to federal funding in the form of per capita caps or block grants will continue to stifle any efforts to successfully enact a bipartisan health bill.
Tax reform could also be enacted, but legislators should keep in mind three key principles.
First, reforming our tax code should be kept simple and not overly ambitious. It took over two years in the mid-1980s to reach consensus on the ’86 act. Unfortunately, little or no such consensus exists today.
Second, efforts to pass a border tax should be abandoned. This proposal has become one of the most divisive tax concepts ever proposed, setting not only legislators but also the entire business community at odds. Furthermore, it sends all the wrong messages to other countries, especially those that are important and reliable trading partners.
And finally, Congress must avoid efforts to engage in the repeal of overwhelmingly popular tax provisions. While a good case can be made for repeal of some measures, there is little likelihood that these efforts will be successful under current circumstances.
The Way Forward
Can Congress actually address the “musts, shoulds, and coulds” this year?
Admittedly, it is an ambitious agenda. But if Republicans want to move from a minority mentality to that of a governing party, it will require overriding the vehement objections of the far right to bipartisan legislating, while engaging the entire House and Senate to address the policy challenges and opportunities our country now faces.
The time is short. Sadly, the expectations are low. But the need has rarely been greater.
Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is the former Senate majority leader and is the founder and CEO of The Daschle Group.
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