The “lame-duck” session of Congress has only just begun, but already expectations are low. President Obama’s intention to move ahead unilaterally on immigration threatens to inflame partisan passions. And outside Washington’s Beltway, trust in government plumbs new lows.
But the lame duck doesn’t have to be a flop. A similar session in 2010, which also came after a Republican election rout, was one of the most fruitful ever. Among other achievements, lawmakers ratified a nuclear arms treaty and ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy affecting gays in the military.
Similar accomplishments are possible now, and both sides have incentives. Obama has just two years left to burnish his legacy. Republicans need to demonstrate that they can govern, not just obstruct.
Congress would do well to start with the political equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Another government shutdown, such as the one engineered last fall by House Republicans (some of whom are pushing for a rerun), would be a political and economic debacle.
A more productive approach would be the one that helps both sides and, more important, the nation. Among the things Congress can and should achieve by year’s end:
Pass a budget. The most basic thing that citizens expect of Congress is a decision on how much money each department or agency gets and how to spend it. This should not be difficult — and until recently wasn’t. If Republicans want to position themselves well in the run-up to the 2016 election, they need to be done with this year’s budget and start an orderly process for next year.
This year’s funding should include the $6.2 billion Obama requested for fighting Ebola and the $5.6 billion he is seeking to combat the Islamic State. The beheading of American hostage Peter Kassig, confirmed Sunday, reinforces the need for the U.S. to display unity and resolve in confronting the group’s barbarity.
Fund the highways. Federal highways and transit systems have been funded (or underfunded, to be more exact) on a piecemeal approach through budgetary smoke and mirrors. It is time to give transportation adequate and stable funding. The Obama administration has proposed a four-year, $302 billion highway bill funded in large part from corporate tax reform.
A better approach would be simply to raise the federal gas tax to where it was, adjusted for inflation, in 1993, the last time it was hiked. With the next election two years off and more than 60 departing lawmakers not having to face voters again, this is the perfect time to increase the tax from the current 18.4-cents-a-gallon to an inflation-adjusted 30.3 cents. And with gas prices plummeting, chances are motorists would barely notice.
Rein in the NSA. Americans were rightly appalled to find out last year that the National Security Agency has been routinely sweeping up phone data showing who Americans call, and for how long. A measure to limit the NSA’s ability to collect and access your phone records has surprising bipartisan support.
The Senate version is backed by both liberal Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and conservative Ted Cruz, R-Texas. A House version is sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the author of the USA Patriot Act in 2001. The NSA needs firm guidance that the phone “metadata” program goes well beyond the targeted information gathering that Congress thought it had approved in the days after 9/11.
Expand trade. Obama and most congressional Republicans would like to complete a trans-Pacific trade agreement linking the Americas with Asia. And both realize that that won’t happen until Congress passes trade promotion authority, also known as “fast track,” which gives Congress the power to accept or reject a deal but not to amend or filibuster it. One roadblock so far has been Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who refused to bring it to the floor. With a Republican majority coming in January, he might as well do it now and take credit for it.
Extend key tax breaks. Efforts to overhaul the nation’s absurdly complex tax code have gone nowhere, and Congress is left with its usual year-by-year extension of popular tax breaks for mortgages, state and local taxes, and a wide assortment of giveaways. Only it hasn’t done that and, as things stand, taxpayers would not be able to claim these breaks for the 2014 tax year. While many breaks ought to be pared back or eliminated in return for lower rates, letting them expire without any offsetting tax cuts would be too big a hit.
This is not a difficult list. It is composed largely of items that enjoy bipartisan support and could have been approved already this year. With Congress’ disapproval ratingexceeding 80%, the lame-duck session gives it a last shot at salvaging its reputation.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.