This year's Congress is perilously close to a failing grade

This year's Congress is perilously close to a failing grade
© Camille Fine

Do you remember that sinking feeling from college when finals were approaching? The semester has flown by with care-free abandon, and then it hits you: final exams are right around the corner. What’s worse, your final exam grade accounts for close to 50 percent of your total grade. Everything is on the line, and now the date is only a few weeks away.

Anyone watching Congress is starting to get that same sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. So far this fall, there’s been a lot of talk, but all the action has been kicked down the road to December. And what transpires will make up way more than 50 percent of their grade.

Unlike your college days, however, Congress hasn’t been procrastinating for just a semester. They’ve been procrastinating for decades.


Some of things that Congress has left on its plate for this year include: tax reform, debt ceiling increase, 2018 spending bills, and several reauthorizations, including the Child Health Insurance Program. Talk about a hefty to-do list!


The first big item should be dealing with spending. Congress has a spending problem. Nearly two decades of deficit spending has led to $20 trillion in national debt. The GOP is supposed to be the party of fiscal discipline, and they currently enjoy majorities in both chambers of Congress, as well as control of the White House. The opportunity to rein in out-of-control spending is realistic but fleeting.

Lawmakers also need to deal head-on with defense spending. This is a national priority because the global threat level to the United States is particularly high, and the current state of our military readiness is particularly low. President Trump’s promise to rebuild the American military and restore its level of readiness is one of the most important. He has proposed a budget that increases national defense spending and makes necessary cuts elsewhere. Congress should follow his lead.

When they took over the House in 2011, Republicans forced the enactment of the Budget Control Act, which capped discretionary spending. Each time they’ve bumped up against those caps, Republicans and Democrats have compromised and increased both defense spending and domestic spending in equal increments. This is the worst kind of procrastination, because it involves a failure to act to fix the problem and an action that actually makes the problem worse.

In December, Congress will have a chance to finally course correct, restore fiscal discipline, and rebuild the military. On Dec. 8, the president’s short-term spending deal will expire, and Congress must send a new appropriations bill to the White House. Despite their procrastination, it’s never too late to get it right, and they’re not yet mathematically eliminated from getting an A+.

President Trump and congressional leaders have also promised to deliver on tax reform before Christmas, and as always, Christmas can’t come soon enough. They recently cleared a major hurdle by passing the budget resolution, and are riding strong momentum. The package they are considering will cut taxes for the middle class and set up a much more competitive tax structure for American businesses. The GOP tax plan is good for all of us. 

But they have only 28 legislative days until their “final exam.” To nail it, congressional leaders will have to be nimble, responsive and transparent. As was the case with ObamaCare repeal, a failure to be responsive to conservative members and transparent with the American public led to endless delays. To get tax reform right, Republicans need to stick to the hard-fought consensus represented by their “United Framework,” and be deliberative and thoughtful throughout the process.

Many college kids justify their procrastination with that famous adage, “I work better under pressure.” Let’s hope that adage is true for Congress. In December, they’re facing a massive fiscal cliff that includes appropriations and the debt ceiling coupled with a fleeting opportunity to restore fiscal discipline. To make this year’s final exams even more pressure-packed, Congress is engaged in an insanely important tax reform debate that’s been delayed for more than 30 years. They’ll have their grades back by Christmas.

Thomas Binion is the director of Congressional and Executive Branch Relations at The Heritage Foundation.