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5 Issues Congress Will Tackle This Year—and 1 They Definitely Won’t

Capitol Hill Republicans spent much of the Christmas break rejoicing over the passage of tax reform. But when they return in 2018, they’ll face a thorny briar patch of other issues they’ll need to tackle. Many of these items should have been dealt with in 2017 but were put off with short-term patches. With these problems still looming and Donald Trump eager to follow up his tax overhaul with other successes, expect a busy congressional calendar in the year to come—though not as busy as it could be. Let’s begin with the one thing we can be sure Congress won’t deal with.

Autopilot spending: Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security

The government borrows [1] money to keep Social Security running and spends nearly $7 million per minute [2], or roughly $50,000 every second. The United States has $20 trillion [3] of public debt, or nearly $161,000 per taxpayer. The deficit is set to hit $1.5 trillion [4] within a decade.

Yet most of the spending debates in Congress revolve around discretionary spending, which makes up only about one third of government spending. Sixty-nine percent of total federal spending [5] is mandatory, meaning it’s typically never altered, and therefore there’s no annual policy legislation or funding debate associated with roughly three quarters of the government budget. Speaker Paul Ryan has promised to address mandatory spending, which includes welfare and entitlements, in 2018. With the country drowning in an ocean of debt, this makes sense.

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Medicare is one such mandatory program, especially significant as health costs continue to skyrocket. Health care expenditures were 17.9 percent of GDP in 2016, [6] and the federal government paid for 28 percent of that. Medicare’s tab hit $672.1 billion in 2016, or 15 percent of the total federal budget for that year [7]. Medicaid was another 10 percent. In 2016, Social Security made up 24 percent of the federal budget.

When programs like Medicare and Social Security were signed into law, few people lived long enough to receive many years of their benefits. There were 41 workers for every Social Security beneficiary in 1945 [8]. Today there are less than three workers for every beneficiary [9] and that’s expected to fall to two workers per retiree by 2030.

It isn’t possible to address the federal government’s long-range funding issues without serious reforms to each of these major outlays. Unfortunately, solutions like changing the retirement age or changing the payouts to retirees who receive other income have politicians running scared.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has  [10]signaled [10] that despite Ryan’s eagerness, [10] he’s unwilling to address these issues with the narrow Senate majority the GOP faces in 2018. “The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result,” McConnell said [10] last week. Senator Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, said partisan changes to Medicare would be “a bridge too far.”

“All you have to do is the math,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told Politico [10]. “Unless it’s bipartisan, then you’re talking about reconciliation which means you have to pass a budget, you have to get reconciliation instructions and you have to get 51 Republicans all to vote for it.” And with Senate sources hinting they’re unwilling to use reconciliation to secure entitlement reform, it might be that the House makes some headway, but the Senate won’t, certainly not in an election year.

So if not spending reform, what will Congress address in 2018?

Funding the government 

There’s no greater example of the “kick the can down the road” approach to legislation then the annual “keep the government open” crisis, which—thanks to short-term funding extensions—has now expanded into a multi-part affair. Instead of dealing with this headache annually just before Christmas, we’re now treated to multiple stopgap spending bills (also called continuing resolutions) and their associated crisis-careening approach to accounting.

Congress doesn’t want to deal with its addiction to spending, so it avoids budgeting and taking votes on appropriations bills by delaying these processes as long as possible, right up to the point when the government’s spending powers would expire. Thus did they pass a stopgap spending bill late last month, which replaced another stopgap that expired in September. Their new deadline is January 19, 2018. This method of governance is harmful to government agencies, since they must budget as if funding is drying up in a few months and can’t embark on new initiatives.

It’s unclear which party will be hurt most if lawmakers are unable to patch together a deal in January, but neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a great desire to play Washington’s game of fiscal chicken. For Republicans, that’s because they don’t want to be blamed for another government shutdown. For Democrats, it’s because they’re starting to worry they too will get blamed if there is no budget deal, as the New York Times has reported [11]While in the past the media has reliably faulted Republicans for shutdowns, Trump has ably flipped  [12]the script with his bully pulpit and command of social media. He’s already accused [13] Democrats of wanting a shutdown to distract from the GOP tax victory. If the government does close its doors, that narrative could stick.

Warrantless surveillance 

While last week Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and  [14]Ron Wyden were able to form a bipartisan coalition to table [14] the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 (Section 702), which would have allowed the government to continue collecting and reading electronic communications such as emails and phone calls made by non-U.S. citizens, the vote to renew the section isn’t dead—merely postponed until 2018.

Trump’s lawyers may argue that the section is active until April 2018 due to the program’s one-year certification. Regardless, this and other problematic sections impinging on privacy rights are likely to find their way into any must-pass spending bill.

Dismantling Obamacare

Republicans promised over and over again to repeal Obamacare in 2017, [15] only to fall painfully short. But 2017’s zombie issue may rise again in 2018 to haunt the GOP. Thanks to the tax bill [16], the government can no longer force you to buy health insurance—but the individual mandate wasn’t the only problem with Obamacare. As costs balloon and markets collapse, the GOP will be pressed (again) to offer a working alternative to the single-payer system some Senate Democrats are already proferring. [17]

Immigration reform

After a year of inaction on immigration, three dozen Republican lawmakers asked the GOP to enable a legal solution for Dreamers [18] (those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] program) by the end of the 2017. This issue, like many others, was not addressed in 2017 and remains a political football for the GOP, as it is deeply unpopular with much of the base. Democrats have used legalization as a linch pin in the budget debate, and Republicans no doubt want the issue off the table before the next funding deadline. That may be why Senate Republican leaders say they plan to move an immigration bill to the floor [19] in early 2018.

While Trump rescinded Obama’s unconstitutional DACA program, he has offered that he’s willing to negotiate a fix for the Dreamers in exchange for an end to chain migration, thereby limiting new citizens and the number of permanent legal residents they can sponsor. But Trump has also made it clear that he wants a solution on DACA and Congress will be expected to deliver.

Infrastructure spending

President Trump believes a massive funding infusion to repair the country’s roads and bridges can gather easy bipartisan support, despite next year’s midterm elections and the already deeply divided Congress. Aides said to expect a major push for infrastructure funding [20] in 2018.

“The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly,” Trump tweeted. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

This is smart politics. Last year, the United States spent $255 million to repair roads in Afghanistan; overall, we’ve spent nearly $3 billion on roads there, many of which are now beyond repair [21]. Like the $285 million that his administration took out of the United Nations budget [22], it won’t be hard for Trump to make the argument that U.S. money is better spent at home. Expect action from Congress on this one, even if the details of infrastructure funding are a bit more complex than the president makes them out to be.

Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II, and is a summa cum laude graduate of Immaculata University. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "5 Issues Congress Will Tackle This Year—and 1 They Definitely Won’t"

#1 Comment By MEOW On January 1, 2018 @ 11:09 pm

Trump Came on the scene like Haley’s comment. He portrayed himself as someone that would reverse immigration abuses, get us out of the morass in the Middle East, and take a close look at such anachronisms as the Federal Reserve etc. Then reality hit. His handlers called in their chips. He outsourced our foreign policy to AIPAC and the neocons, is letting what is ostensibly a foreign backing system control our currency, and I fear may be dispossessing millions of their hard earned, ever so flimsy, medical care and pushing large segments of the U.S. back into medical-coverage thrird world status. To be true he should just have trotted Netanyahu and Jared Kushner out and said – here is what you are getting when you vote for me.

#2 Comment By Bob K. On January 2, 2018 @ 12:08 am

Congress doesn’t borrow money out to keep Social Security running. It takes it out of every working person’s paycheck for about 45 to 50 years of their lives to keep the program running and then it gives it back to them without paying any interest on it if they are fortunate enough to live long enough to get it!

#3 Comment By Bob K. On January 2, 2018 @ 12:14 am

Congress does not borrow money to pay Social Security. It takes it out of every person’s paycheck for the first 40 or 50 years of their working life to fund the program and then it gives it back to them without paying any interest on it; providing the person lives long enough to qualify for it!

#4 Comment By Realist On January 2, 2018 @ 2:06 am

How about gutting the bloated military budget?

#5 Comment By oakinhouston On January 2, 2018 @ 9:03 am

“The deficit is set to hit $1.5 trillion within a decade.”

You mean the deficit created by the tax reform that the Republican Congress just passed on? That deficit? The one that was just created to give tax cuts?

I thought you were a fan of that tax reform. I guess I just missed your articles against it.

#6 Comment By Dan Green On January 2, 2018 @ 9:27 am

No surprises here. Main street remains well aware, the swamp is dysfunctional.

#7 Comment By LouisM On January 2, 2018 @ 10:38 am

I understand why Trump wants to end chain migration and reduce immigration. The reason is why entitlements cannot be tackled without immigration reform.

You can argue whether economic migrants come here for our social safety net (welfare, tuition, food, utilities, furniture, medical, dental, etc) or whether they come here to work. Though most statistics prove immigration costs more in services than immigrants pay in to the system.

The one thing that the facts and statistics are plain is regarding chain migration where immigrants bring in aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc then put them on SSI which is the backdoor to getting immigrants onto programs where one was required to work in order to receive benefits. Chain migration allows immigrants to sponsor older immigrants with limited work years remaining (if they are not already to old to work) likely to claim some form of illness allowing them to receive SSI disability, medicare and nursing home care.

If you listen to the media, then its all because of the aging baby boomers retiring but they never mention the 100 million immigrants in our country who never paid into our social safety need but are collecting benefits in massive numbers.

Solving the chain migration problem and barring immigrants likely to receive social assistance isn’t 100% of the solution but it is a large enough piece of the solution that it would allow both parties to explore a wider range of solutions and compromises.

Mixing chain migration with retiring baby boomers yields a problem so large that neither party has common ground with the other.

Last point and warning to the GOP / Conservatives: Don’t for a minute think that the working class in the US (and Canada and Europe for that matter) doesn’t know and resent that they are being forced to accept cuts in their medicare, social security disability, social security, etc which they worked their entire life so benefits can be extended to immigrants (legal and illegal) who have never contributed to the system. This is a huge thorn in the anti-immigrant side of the GOP/Conservative base. Its one reason why they wont give an easy pass to immigration or entitlement reform.

#8 Comment By Lord Karth On January 2, 2018 @ 11:33 am

@ Dan Green:

It’s all well and good to decry the existence of the swamp, but the Main Street-types are the ones who populated the Swamp to begin with.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#9 Comment By Bookkeeping Service On January 2, 2018 @ 3:25 pm

Personal income taxes are what makes the US a first world country. Taxes pay for both social and physical infrastructure. Without that there would be a very small ‘wealthy class’, a slightly larger middle class and a whale of a lot of poor people. Lack of infrastructure is what you see in every third world country leading to a wealthy class that owns 90% of everything worth owning.

#10 Comment By Hans van Berg On January 2, 2018 @ 8:23 pm

In the 2008 debate, Joe Biden said he didn’t question the motives of those with whom he disagreed, only their judgment. If we give similar respect to GOP leaders we have to assume that their motive was honorable… not a scam to enrich their wealthy cronies at the expense of commoners. We have to assume they either expect the tax cut to stimulate the economy so much so as to at least pay for itself, or that they will cut something else to compensate for the cost of the tax cut. Otherwise, it is crazy for government to intentionally reduce its income when already badly in the red.

#11 Comment By Clyde Schechter On January 2, 2018 @ 9:13 pm

@LouisM

Most forms of social assistance are unavailable to immigrants until they achieve legal permanent resident status.

In addition, both Medicare and Social Security are available only to people who have contributed to Social Security through at least 10 years of work (if they were born after 1929, as most living today are).

#12 Comment By cka2nd On January 3, 2018 @ 1:21 am

I’m shocked, shocked to see yet another article in TAC questioning spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid but not mentioning the amount of money spent on the Pentagon, the surveillance state or the prison industrial complex.

As I’ve said before, enough with the warmed over knee jerk “Conservative, Inc.” articles that could have been published in the National Review, Weekly Standard, Washington Examiner, etc., etc. And, by the way, I doubt that most Trump voters are in favor of cutting spending on the big three “entitlements,” so a conservative defense of them – and unions (eeek!) – might actually attract some of those folks.

#13 Comment By b. On January 3, 2018 @ 11:07 am

Autopilot spending: national “securities”.

The problem that the unpartisan ‘stablishment has with “entitlements” extends only as far as tax revenue goes from those who have some to those who do not have enough – because that means it does not go to those who already have too much. Opportunistic sycophants and retainers cannot stand opportunity costs.

There is a principled conservative stance against outsized wealth – especially inbred wealth – based on the recognition that it distorts and destabilizes the institutions and actions of government. That recognition goes back to the Founding of the Republic. Most importantly, any successful tax-to-wealth extraction con further increases the wealth concentration that further corrupts the government that facilitates even more wealth extraction. We only need to look at “defense”, mortgages, student loans, health insurance, prisons, to see this feedback loop “at work”.

The GOP never had a problem with “welfare”, as long as “entitlements” are handed out as for-profit “services”. The rot at the hearts and minds of “Western civilization” has always been the lack of separation between the power of governance and the power of accrued wealth in its various “incorporations”. Totalitarian oligarchy is always the end result. As long “conservative” remains synonymous with “lickspittles to power”, increasingly less of our ancestors accomplishments will be conserved.

Millions of powerless recipients of minimal welfare – life support without dignity or opportunity – are without doubt a staggering and unaffordable waste of human potential, and unsustainably harmful to any open society, but, short of revolution against the intolerable, they could not hurt the Republic as much as billions of dollars of inbred assets committed to abolishing the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and the incompetent elite of retainers aiding and abetting them. All the “entitled” can do is vote for them, or not vote at all. That is the lesson of Trump.

#14 Comment By Brad On January 3, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

@Bob K

Have you ever looked at what you actually put into Social Security with your taxes? Most people will take out far more than they put in, especially from past generations. From the Urban Institute.

People rarely know what they actually pay in taxes, and often fall back to the ‘I paid taxes all my life!” argument.

In 1950, the average American lived for 68 years and retirees were supported by 16 active workers. Now, the average life expectancy is 78 and just three workers support every retiree.

“According to the institute’s data, a two-earner couple receiving an average wage — $44,600 per spouse in 2012 dollars — and turning 65 in 2010 would have paid $722,000 into Social Security and Medicare and can be expected to take out $966,000 in benefits. So, this couple will be paid about one-third more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

If a similar couple had retired in 1980, they would have gotten back almost three times what they put in. And if they had retired in 1960, they would have gotten back more than eight times what they paid in. The bigger discrepancies common decades ago can be traced in part to the fact that some of these individuals’ working lives came before Social Security taxes were collected beginning in 1937.”

#15 Comment By JonF On January 3, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

Re: If you listen to the media, then its all because of the aging baby boomers retiring but they never mention the 100 million immigrants in our country who never paid into our social safety need but are collecting benefits in massive numbers.

There are not “100 million immigrants” in the US. The foreign born population of the US is c. 41 million. That’s a large number, 13% of our total population, however by age they skew younger than native-born Americans and most are a long way from being able to collect Social Security– which they (the legal ones at least) are paying into. And the fact that they pay into it does not entitle anyone else, other than a spouse, to collect benefits.

Re: Most people will take out far more than they put in, especially from past generations. From the Urban Institute.

In regards to Social Security this is less and less and true by the day. The younger one is the less likely one is to collect what one paid into the system (No, that is not because of any hypothetical collapse of the system). Current recipients paid fairly low taxes into the system, but benefits were increased considerably by COLA (cost of living) raises during the high inflation years of the 70s and 80s– hence they appear to be getting a windfall. Those working now are paying higher taxes while benefits are increasing only very marginally due to low inflation. They will not get that same windfall.

#16 Comment By Hikerdudette On January 4, 2018 @ 12:53 am

“Autopilot spending: Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security” Funny, I would call it autopilot spending for wars, that kill people.

#17 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 5, 2018 @ 11:58 am

I have been saying for years that a single-payer system is inevitable and that it’s not a question of “if”, only “when.” One would have to be willfully blind not to see that the current system is unsustainable. Private insurance markets are contracting due to problems inherent in insuring the great masses of people against sickness and disease. The operative phrase here is “great masses of people”–we’re talking 300+ million– and this is beyond the capacity of the private sector to address, which is why a taxpayer funded health care system is the only alternative. Note the word “alternative”. It is not necessarily the solution-because there may BE no “solution” to the problem of health care financing.