How Congress can make progress for the American people OpEds

No significant federal legislation has become law this year. That’s remarkable given that both the US House of Representatives and Senate are controlled by Republican majorities and President Donald Trump is also a Republican. Washington DC is now Dysfunction Junction. This week, Congress returns from their August break and many are asking if they can get any agenda items back on the rails and really make progress for the American people. They can, and here’s how.

Among key issues to be addressed include: Hurricane Harvey disaster assistance, raising the debt ceiling, keeping government open by passing funding, tax reform, infrastructure improvements and health care. It is a long list and a daunting agenda made more difficult by the lack of accomplishments to date. It is also more difficult because of the President’s bullying and bellicose behavior and hair-trigger tweets — some directed at his own congressional leaders — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Many of the agenda items are timely imperatives. Disaster assistance, raising the debt ceiling and government funding all need to be addressed this month.

Disaster Assistance–This should be the first thing outta the box. Those impacted by Harvey require assistance as soon as possible. The President, having visited the impacted areas twice, knows this and has requested nearly $8 billion. While that amount may seem like a lot, relative to the need it is a dismal drop in the bucket. For example, Hurricane Katrina cost $160 billion and Congress provided $100 billion of that. Hurricane Harvey is estimated to cost $190 billion, making it our nation’s most expensive natural disaster ever. More than $8 billion will be required and Congress would be well-advised to go ahead an significantly up the President’s request by twenty billion (at least) to avoid yet another must-pass disaster assistance measure later in the year.

Debt Ceiling–Raising the debt ceiling, in this case to at least $19.9 trillion (the Treasury Department’s determined need), would not increase the deficit, as some suggest. Rather, it simply pays the debts we as a nation (via Congressional appropriations) have already incurred. Not raising the debt ceiling would undermine the full faith and credit of the United States. Our nation’s credit rating would actually drop. It would send markets into a major meltdown, taking with it the investments made, including retirement investments of pension funds. There’s been some talk of combining disaster assistance and the debt ceiling increase. That’s a good idea and can take two of the must-have agenda items off the long list in one piece of legislation.

Keeping the Government Open–Back in 2013, Congress failed to provide funding and the government was closed for 16 days. The Office of Management and Budget estimated that 120,000 private sector jobs were lost. The closure actually cost government over $25 billion! Furthermore, tens of millions of Americans were denied services. Everything from food, drug and transportation safety to social security checks, small business loans to tax refunds. They were all shuttered.

President Trump, in his speech in Arizona recently, spoke of his desire to ensure funding for his US-Mexico border wall, saying if such was not included in the year-end funding, “We could use a good government shutdown.” Mr. President, there’s no good government shutdown. Isn’t rebuilding Houston and other impacted areas more urgent that the border wall? Of course.

With regard to the other agenda items, tax reform and infrastructure improvements could do the most economic good for people and our nation. However, the Trump Administration has failed to provide leadership on these two key issues — both polices which were touted during last year’s election campaign as items that would begin in earnest on day one.

Tax Reform–Unbelievably, only a scant one-page of principles has been released (in April) on tax reform. That’s it! When the President traveled to Missouri last week and gave a major speech on the issue, he was even more vague. He only discussed numbers related to how corporate rates should drop from 35 to 15 percent, and no numbers on what he is seeking for individuals. He did talk about repatriation (bringing back to the US) corporate capital and profits that reside in other nations. He also spoke of tax simplification–and good for him–although that’s about as controversial as apple pie.

On tax reform, the President should just let his Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and Director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, do their work in supporting Capitol Hill. The President hasn’t helped move the ball forward whatsoever. His staff should run the numbers on the impact of tax legislation and endeavor to pay for any tax cuts to make the legislation budget neutral. The President, however, should simply get out of the way and do no harm. No more menacing tweets about congressional leadership.

While Secretary Mnuchin says a bill can become law still this year, that’s most unlikely. It is just too heavy a lift for the time remaining. Tax reform is super complicated and politically difficult, which is why it hasn’t been accomplish since Ronald Reagan was President in 1986. However, there’s still time to get it done by the middle of next year, before the rough and raunchy rhetoric of the mid-term elections is in full swing. Let’s wish them luck. Working middle class Americans, especially, can use a tax reduction.

Infrastructure Improvements–Candidate Trump touted the need for a trillions dollar infrastructure improvement bill. It was to include everything from roads and bridges to rail, airports, and waterways to water systems. It was a bold and big idea around which he had many supporters, including Democrats. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has not provided any legislative proposal. In fact, a mere six-pager is all that we’ve seen on the idea. This is perhaps the area in which the President can assist in moving things forward as a result of his developer/builder background. He should step it up, work with members of the House and Senate from both parties and pass legislation that will make us stronger and help fuel-inject our economy and provide needed jobs at the same time.

Health Care–On repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, the House has passed legislation and the Senate failed to do so. There’s no denying that improvements can and should be made to the current law. However, the best way to make progress is to work with Democrats to create a positive policy path forward that can actually garner the needed votes and become law.

Finally, I spent 30 years in government, half of the time working in the House and Senate (including years working for the Senate Majority Leader and passing major legislation). Getting good bills passed isn’t normally about one party or another. Moderating toward the middle and gaining support from Democrats and Republicans is a sure-footed action plan. It is all about getting to YES on legislation. The Republicans in Congress have failed to do what is required using their majorities. It is fine they tried. Nevertheless, now it is time for another approach, and one that’s more likely to achieve strong success for our country.

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