Congress begins this week with leftovers on its plate that hardly anyone wants to deal with. These include the stalled tax extenders bill in the Senate and the war supplemental appropriations bill in the House.
With regard to the tax extenders bill, the legislation first passed the House last December and had a price tag of about $55 billion. It extends dozens of expired tax provisions popular with many segments of our country, from doctors, teachers and state governments to energy companies. The problem with this bill is that each time one of the chambers in our bi-cameral legislature finishes debating the bill, it gets fatter and fatter and very little gets paid-for or offset. The tab for this bill now runs about $140 billion.
The war supplemental has followed a similar path. When the president requested this bill back in March to fund our two wars and replenish FEMA, it had a price tag of $33 billion. Now, after the Senate has dealt with it, the House wants to push the unpaid price of this bill up to $84 billion. Is it any wonder why the Democratic leaders of Congress are struggling to find the votes to pass these bills?
The problem seems to be that the leaders can't control their chairman when it comes to adding more spending and they can't corral enough of their members to go along with this excessive spending. Thus you have the current mess in both the House and Senate.
In order to relieve some of the pressure caused by the Senate failing to pass the extenders bill over the last couple of weeks, on Friday the Senate passed a temporary halt in the scheduled cut doctors were facing when they saw Medicare patients. The extenders bill had a multi-year postponement of the cut and actually gave doctors a small increase. The temporary provision was crafted in an effort to make sure doctors continue to see Medicare patients.
However, the AMA (American Medical Association), for one, is getting pretty tired of Congress' failure to act. AMA President Cecil Wilson said, "Congress is playing Russian roulette with seniors' health care. This is no way to run a major health coverage program -- already the instability caused by repeated short-term delays is taking its toll."
The Senate tax extenders bill includes an extension of the federal unemployment benefits which expired June 1, 2010 and federal Medicaid reimbursements to states. States were expecting this money and the unemployed got no warning that their checks were going to end abruptly.
The House war supplemental appropriations bill funds the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, they are getting dangerously low on funds. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations committee last Wednesday, "I am becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of progress on the supplemental and strongly urge Congress to complete its work on the request as quickly as possible."
FEMA, too, is on the brink and if any our of states have an emergency situation, FEMA may not be able to respond fully. The Democratic leadership on both sides of the U. S. Capitol need to exercise some spending discipline in order to garner the needed votes to pass these bills -- albeit, in a slimmed-down version.
In the meantime, both chambers are considering other legislative items while they negotiate behind the scenes to form a strategy to pass these bills. The Senate may consider the food safety bill which is designed to give the FDA more authority. The House will need to deal with the "Dr. fix" bill that was just described, passed late last week in the Senate. They may also consider the DISCLOSE Act requiring corporations and non-profits to disclose their donors when they sponsor political ads.
A lot needs to be resolved this week in order to get the two major bills to the presidents desk by the upcoming 4th of July week-long congressional recess. Stay tuned, as congressional leaders try to suppress an already insatiable appetite for spending other peoples money.
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.