Congress found itself mostly tied up in knots this week, as both the Senate and the House chambers tried to find votes for passage of bills that have huge price tags, and have no offsets or spending cuts to pay the cost of the bills.
The first is the $115 billion tax extender bill that this writer has discussed in previous Washington Weekpieces. This bill extends as many as 50 expired tax provisions, many of which are popular with state governors, teachers, doctors and the unemployed.
This bill has languished in the Senate for the second week and at one point had a price tag of $140 billion, with about $70 billion offset by cuts. The Senate conducted two vital votes on the main substitute amendment offered by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, which required 60 votes. The first attempt to adopt the $140 billion substitute failed to reach the 60-vote threshold by 15 votes.
The vote was 45-52. This woefully short final vote tally sent the Senate Democrats back to the drawing board and they shrunk the price tag of the bill considerably. The next time the vote occurred on the substitute amendment, now modified, the vote was 56-40.
In between these votes, GOP senators offered amendments to cut the cost and help pay the price tag associated with the bill. Sen. George LeMieux, R-Florida, offered an amendment that would allow the government to return to the spending levels from 2007, just before the recession. Sen. LeMieux said during the debate: "So if we go back to 2007 level spending at $2.729 trillion, by 2013 we would balance the budget, and by 2020, instead of having a $25.7 trillion national debt, we would cut the current national debt in half, and it would be somewhere around $6 trillion, and we would save America."
The LeMieux amendment did not get a vote prior to the Senate leaving for the week, but it is expected to be voted on early next week in the Senate.
On Friday, in an effort to take some of the pressure off of the Senate as a result of failing to pass the extenders bill, the Senate passed a quickly cobbled together bill to help doctors who see Medicare patients. Without this quickly passed bill, doctors who see Medicare patients would be cut 21 percent when they submit their bills for reimbursement by the federal government.
This postpones that cut in their pay until the end of November. Senate watchers this week clearly needed ointment for their neckaches after watching the tax extender bill and its roller coaster price tag.
The House tried to garner votes for the war supplemental appropriations bill that the president requested in March to pay for our war efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and to replenish FEMA. The bill originally was costing us $33 billion, and after the Senate got through with it, the price was $60 billion. The House wants to add more, making the total $84 billion. None of this is paid for or offset, so getting enough votes to pass this in the House is getting harder and harder for the speaker.
Since the speaker didn't have the votes to pass the supplemental this week, she instead had the House consider small-business lending and tax relief legislation. This bill has a price tag of approx. $30 billion and it is paid for and offset ... sort of. You see, the offset comes from 2015 taxes. Yes, you read that correctly, the House legislation requires large corporations to pay their 2015, third-quarter estimated taxes now.
This brings the U.S. Treasury a pot of money to pay the small-business lending and tax relief bill. The bill gives small businesses tax write-offs for upstart costs from $5,000 to $20,000. Technically, a member of Congress can say that he/she voted for the small-business bill because it was fully offset. However, any 8th grader can figure out that when the federal government goes to collect the third-quarter taxes in 2015, the bill collector will get zero.
So, when you hear about Congress passing a fully paid-for small-business tax relief and lending bill, you can chuckle under your breath about the smoke and mirrors that Congress uses to "pay for" things in Washington, DC.
Maybe Sen. LeMieux has it right. Going back to spending levels from 2007 is clearly better than paying for things by collecting taxes from 2015.
Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate Secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of GradeGov.com.