Standard & Poor’s announcement downgrading the United States’ credit rating claimed “the political brinkmanship of recent months” shows “America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable.”
Looking ahead at Congress’ to-do list over the next six months, there are five big opportunities for Congress to prove S&P wrong. While none of Congress’ upcoming business threatens to shut down the federal government as extensively as not raising the debt limit would have, there are no less than five opportunities for significant disruptions if Congress fails to act.
- 2012 appropriations bills: Every year, Congress must pass 12 appropriations to fund the federal government. Last year, the Democratically controlled 111th Congress failed to pass any appropriations bills, hence the government funding showdown this spring.
But those funding bills run out Sept. 30 and the 112th Congress has only passed one appropriations bill so far (military/veterans). If the other 11 appropriations bills are not passed before October, all but the military portions of the federal government will be shut down.
- Highway funding reauthorization: The law governing our federal highway and mass transit systems — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) — also expires Sept. 30.
If this law is not extended, the federal government will no longer be able to collect the federal gas tax, which stands at 18.4 cents a gallon. For years, conservatives have tried to reform how the Highway Trust Fund allocates money to states. No gas tax revenue would mean no federal funds for highway maintenance and construction.
- Super Congress: The debt limit increase signed by President Barack Obama on Aug. 2 also created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — aka Super Congress — consisting of 12 members (three House Democrats, three House Republicans, three Senate Democrats and three Senate Republicans) charged with creating legislation to reduce the debt.
This Super Congress must approve a bill (agreed to by at least seven members of the Committee) by Nov. 23. The regular Congress must then pass that bill by Dec. 23. If no bill is passed, then $1.2 trillion in cuts (divided equally between defense and domestic programs, except Social Security and Medicaid) automatically become law.
- Medicare doctor payments: In addition to stealing more than $500 billion from Medicare to help pay for a new entitlement, Obamacare also failed to reform the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, a funding formula created by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
Under the SGR, the rates at which doctors are paid by Medicare were supposed to drop by 25 percent on Jan. 1 of this year. But Congress agreed in December to steal enough money from the yet-to-be-implemented Obamacare health exchange subsidies to pay doctors at near 2010 rates through 2011.
But if Congress does not fix these payments again by Dec. 31, doctors will be paid 25 percent less for every Medicare patient they treat starting in January.
- Alternative Minimum Tax: The AMT is a secondary tax system set up by Congress in 1969 to limit the amount of taxes wealthy Americans could escape paying by using tax credits and other loopholes.
In 1969, the tax only affected 200 Americans. Today it would hit almost 4 million taxpayers. In December 2010, Congress adjusted the calculations to relieve 2 million Americans from AMT liability. Those adjustments expire Jan. 1.
It seems a good bet that Congress will not reach a deal on one or more of the above items before the consequences kick in.
Conn Carroll is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.