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 money to keep Social Security running and spends nearly $7 million per minute, or roughly $50,000 every second. The United States has $20 trillion of public debt, or nearly $161,000 per taxpayer. The deficit is set to hit $1.5 trillion 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 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.
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, 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. 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. Today there are less than three workers for every beneficiary 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 signaled that despite Ryan’s eagerness, 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 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. “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. While in the past the media has reliably faulted Republicans for shutdowns, Trump has ably flipped the script with his bully pulpit and command of social media. He’s already accused Democrats of wanting a shutdown to distract from the GOP tax victory. If the government does close its doors, that narrative could stick.
While last week Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ron Wyden were able to form a bipartisan coalition to table 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.
Republicans promised over and over again to repeal Obamacare in 2017, only to fall painfully short. But 2017’s zombie issue may rise again in 2018 to haunt the GOP. Thanks to the tax bill, 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.
After a year of inaction on immigration, three dozen Republican lawmakers asked the GOP to enable a legal solution for Dreamers (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 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.
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 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. Like the $285 million that his administration took out of the United Nations budget, 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.