The House of Representatives is back in session this week and facing a laundry list of issues that were not dealt with in the first 11 months of the year. The House plans to be in session for two weeks, sending members home for the rest of the year on Friday, Dec. 13. Friday the 13th; that seems like a bad omen. And it may, indeed, be a very unlucky day for the nation if the House really does adjourn for the year.
The Senate, on the other hand, is not back in session until Dec. 9 and plans to stay in town until Dec. 20. For everyone keeping track, that means the two chambers will only be in town at the same time for five "working" days.
If the Congress had been doing its job all year, this scheduling mismatch might not be such a problem. But it hasn't. Not a single regular appropriations bill funding a government department or agency for the coming fiscal year has passed the Senate. The House has passed four of 12 required spending bills. Even if there was no other business to do, Congress could not complete the remaining work to fund government for the rest of fiscal year 2014 in a single week of "togetherness" in Washington.
And there is other business to do. The conference of the House and Senate Budget Committees, the result of the deal that ended the government shutdown, has apparently made progress in the last week, but hopes are not high for any real solution to the long-term budget problems facing the nation. A narrow agreement to set spending limits that will replace sequestration with other revenue or cuts for the next two years may be better than nothing … or it may not. The devil is always in the details and we don't know the details yet. The deadline for those negotiations to conclude is also Friday the 13th, but that deadline has no real teeth since the current continuing resolution to keep the government funded doesn't expire until Jan. 15 of next year.
The bill setting policy for the Department of Defense, a bill that has been successfully passed and signed into law every year for more than 50 years, has not been passed by the Senate. The House finished its work in June. This bill was on the Senate floor when Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., brought up the resolution that finally granted the Senate majority the so-called "nuclear option," changing Senate procedure to allow most executive branch and judicial nominations to be resolved with a simple majority vote.
And speaking of confirmations, that brings up another deadline. The Senate needs to confirm a new chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System by Jan. 31, 2014, the expiration of Chairman Ben Bernanke's term.
But that's not all Congress has on its "must pass" list. The current farm bill extension expired on Sept. 30, but that doesn't have much impact. Nutrition programs continue, crop insurance never expires. But on Jan. 1, taxpayers meet the dreaded "dairy cliff." This is when the administration, because of 60-year old laws aggies refuse to repeal, will have to take us back to 1950s era dairy policy and guarantee milk producers artificially high prices resulting in as much as $8 per gallon milk on a grocery store shelf near you. (Of course, another alternative is that Congress could simply repeal the outdated law and allow the market to set milk prices. But we know that is too logical of an action for this Congress to take).
The fiscal cliff deal made a permanent fix for the encroaching alternative minimum tax, but another hardy perennial, the Medicare doctor payment fix, was left out. This would reduce the payments to doctors under Medicare. While it was adopted as a budget control measure, it's been legislatively "fixed" each year. That issue looms.
Also, there's the tax extenders package. That's the cat and dog mix of various special interest tax breaks benefitting everyone from NASCAR track owners to liquor distillers that gets tacked on to moving pieces of legislation every year. Except this year there doesn't seem to be moving legislation to hitch the caboose to.
Remember, the House and the Senate currently plan to be together in Washington for only five days in December. Perhaps they will have a burst of efficiency and effectiveness by Dec. 20, but I'm not holding my breath.