What's ahead in Congress this year?


cartoon courtesy of cagle cartoons

Earlier this year, it seemed there might be some hope for Capitol Hill when Congress dealt easily with raising the debt ceiling. But don't let that single episode fool you.

As President Obama and House Republicans circle each other over the forthcoming budget cuts known as the "sequester," it's a reminder that Congress and the White House have a complicated legislative agenda ahead.

The big issue, of course, will be the budget and fiscal affairs. Can we get our fiscal house in order? Can we revive economic growth and make the investments we need in human and physical capital? And can we figure out a reasonable way to pay for the government we require?

However Congress and the White House proceed, it's unlikely there will be any "grand bargain." Instead, they are likely to make piecemeal progress on increasing tax revenues and cutting spending on entitlements.

Congress will also turn to health care. As long as President Obama is in office, his signature health plan will not be repealed, but there will almost certainly be fights over its implementation and funding.

There is now clear movement on immigration reform. While Democrats have coalesced around a comprehensive approach, Republicans prefer tackling specific steps separately. The two sides can find common ground, especially on easing the way for high-skilled workers. A path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, on the other hand, will be much knottier to resolve. So while the gridlock may be easing on this issue, comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system is not assured.

You can also look for piece-by-piece initiatives on gun control. While the White House and some members of Congress are looking for wide-ranging legislation, others are focused on specific proposals that can gain bipartisan support. Some members with widely different views, for instance, are coalescing around an effort to expand requirements for background checks on gun sales.

Climate change moved onto the national agenda last year with Hurricane Sandy, but is unlikely to see congressional action. Despite the threat of rising seas and storm surges, Congress seems unprepared to get serious. Instead, the President has vowed to take whatever steps he can by executive order. There are drawbacks to this approach, but it is a reminder that when Congress is able to act, it remains a player, and when it can't, it deals itself out of the policy picture.

- Lee H. Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


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