Lawmakers return to Washington on September 8, from a five-week recess in their home districts, many campaigning for re-election in November. Despite some serious unfinished business, with just a dozen or so legislative days scheduled before the election, Americans may not see the action they would like from lawmakers until at least the “lame duck” session after the election.
As a result of gridlock, partisan bickering and an overall lack of political will, polls show that Americans are rating Congress far less favorably than even Darth Vader. And with senators and representatives focused on the November election, they are unlikely to take any political risks – even if it means sacrificing sound policy decisions in the name of political expediency.
Here are the top 10 things Congressional lawmakers should do this fall. Whether they will remains to be seen.
1. Pass a Federal Budget That Matches Americans’ Priorities
Creating a federal budget that reflects the values of a majority of Americans is one of Congress’ most basic and important tasks all year. But in the past decade, lawmakers have not once come together to pass the 12 appropriations bills that make up the federal budget before October 1, the start of the fiscal year. And last year, their failure to do so forced a 17-day government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion (and in so doing, further slowed the US recovery from the Great Recession).
Instead of passing a real budget, Congress has relied on continuing resolutions, a fallback method of budgeting where lawmakers take last year’s budget, make a few tweaks, and slap a new date on it, all behind closed doors. A fundamental flaw of these backroom deals, though, is that they fail to factor in any constituent input, which means the budget Americans get could be completely out of whack with how they want their federal tax dollars spent. Instead of open debate, Americans get a process that provides political protection for lawmakers while stifling opportunities for real change. Polling shows Americans want to invest their tax dollars in a variety of domestic initiatives, including jobs, education programs, Social Security, and energy and the environment, to name a few. But oftentimes, when lawmakers avert the budget process, those priorities fall by the wayside.
2. Hold an Open, Responsible Discussion on Military Involvement in Iraq
Although President Obama says the United States will not again put combat troops in harm’s way in Iraq, recognizing that the last conflict there was “long and immensely costly,” the United States has already conducted more than 120 targeted air strikes against the Islamic State and has now sent about 1,000 military personnel into Iraq. And while US involvement in Iraq so far seems small and targeted, mission creep is becoming a real threat, as the president calls the fight against the Islamic State a “long-term project.”
The United States has spent $817 billion in Iraq war funding since 2001, and polling overwhelmingly shows that voters don’t want to send troops back. Some lawmakers are pushing for a vote on US military involvement in Iraq, but election tensions mean lawmakers may not want to make big decisions before November. This, unfortunately, means that Americans likely won’t get to weigh in on increasing Iraq involvement for another two months.
3. Take Action on the Border Crisis – and Take a Step Toward a Real Immigration Deal
Unaccompanied children are fleeing the perils of their home countries in Central America and elsewhere and arriving at the southern US border every day. But practices currently in place at the border are incredibly outdated and designed to handle a small number of unaccompanied children only coming to the border – not the tens of thousands that have arrived this year alone. More funds clearly need to be dedicated to the border crisis, but some lawmakers want to simply ship children back to their home countries as quickly as possible regardless of potential harm awaiting them there, while others want to provide case support for those seeking asylum.
Congress has yet to resolve key challenges in the border crisis, including: How much should the United States spend on refugee assistance to minors seeking asylum? How can the United States provide effective humanitarian care? These questions and more are up for debate and Congress currently has two very different proposals on the table. Conversations are happening, but they need to speed up in order to address the growing problem.
4. Create Jobs
The US economy has only just gained back the 8.7 million jobs lost in the Great Recession earlier this year. So while the United States now has more jobs than ever before, job growth hasn’t been nearly strong enough to keep up with population growth (falling 6.6 million jobs short as of July 2014). There’s still much to do and a long way to go. Many Americans remain unemployed and underemployed, and polls show that 74 percent of Americans say improving the job situation is a key issue facing the president and Congress this year. Congress needs to consider proposals that invest critical tax dollars into sectors that will create jobs, such as education, health care and infrastructure.
5. Extend Emergency Unemployment Insurance Benefits
Job creation hasn’t kept pace with population growth since the Great Recession, meaning many Americans remain out of work through no fault of their own. Eight months have passed since Congress failed to renew emergency unemployment insurance benefits for long-term unemployed American workers. And while unemployment insurance proposals have been brought to the table this year, Congress can’t seem to agree on how to pay for the extension, which would cost around $10 billion for five months (even though it would cost just a fraction of one of the top tax breaks for corporations last year). The bottom line is that emergency benefits ended abruptly and prematurely in January, leaving more than 3 million Americans who have been unemployed for six months or more without the critical benefits their families need to buy food, pay rent and get health care. And this figure doesn’t even include the workers who have given up job-searching completely, but who would really, really like a job.
Extending unemployment insurance doesn’t just help unemployed people by putting cash in their pockets. It’s actually one of the best job creation tools the government has – better than routinely touted alternatives such as cutting taxes, giving money to states for infrastructure, or other projects.
6. Raise the Minimum Wage
Creating jobs and helping the unemployed is a start, but making work pay is the conclusion. The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, which means that the $7.25 per hour wage level set five years ago is worth just $6.53 today. Earlier this year, President Obama signed an executive order mandating that the minimum wage for federal contractors be $10.10. Advocates are calling on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 as well.
Raising the minimum wage would mean raising the wages of 28 million American workers who, by the way, are not just teenagers: 88 percent are age 20 or older, and more than a quarter are working parents. Raising the wage would mean more money in the pockets of American workers, which would grow the economy and create jobs. Despite doomsday claims to the contrary, evidence shows that the economy keeps right on growing even when the minimum wage is raised. And BONUS: Higher wages mean a larger tax base, and fewer Americans who would need government assistance like food stamps just to get by.
7. Invest in Higher Education
Our economic security depends on a strong workforce, but the United States is now lagging behind other countries in higher education. The cost of higher education has spiraled out of control in recent years, leading many students to take out student loans in order to finance their degrees, and shutting others out altogether. Seventy-one percent of students borrow to finance their education and the average bachelor’s degree recipient who borrowed owes nearly $30,000 by the time they graduate. Americans now owe an astounding $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, with numbers still rising.
Real options have been proposed in order to make student loans more affordable, such as allowing students to refinance their loans much like a house or a car to take advantage of lower interest rates, or capping student loan payments at a certain percent of income. Congress needs to act on student loans before the US workforce lags further behind and before the US economy starts seeing the ripple effects of student loan debt, such as graduates who are too strapped to start a small business or buy a home.
8. Own Up to Climate Change
Climate change is easy to overlook – until it isn’t. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, and it’s happening because of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The White House recently released an analysis showing that each decade that action on carbon emissions is delayed, the cost of meeting carbon targets increases by more than 40 percent. This problem isn’t going away. In fact, it’s getting worse as it gets more expensive. Congress can bury its head in the sand, or it can deal with climate change head on.
During the August recess, the Environmental Protection Agency held numerous public hearings on a new plan that puts forth some effort to reduce Americans’ carbon footprint. Yet Congress has failed to pass a plan to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions, even though polling shows Americans would support a proposal that required companies to reduce greenhouse gases – even if it meant paying higher utility bills. In fiscal year 2014, the United States will spend just $975 million (less than 1 percent of the total federal budget) on energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Clearly there is room for improvement. And BONUS: Many climate change proposals such as building retrofits for energy efficiency, and investments in renewable energy are also job creators.
9. Take a Hard Look at Tax Breaks (Or at Least Deal With Tax Inversions)
Good investments in the United States’ future are worth it, but they aren’t free – and our nation needs revenue to pay for them. Unfortunately, in 2013 alone, tax breaks siphoned off more than $1 trillion in would-be revenue for the US Treasury. That’s as much as Congress appropriated last year for the entire discretionary budget, which includes spending on the military, education, energy and the environment, and many other spending priorities combined. And, whereas the discretionary budget is (in theory) reviewed annually, once tax breaks are passed, they stay in the tax code until someone takes them out. With powerful interests protecting them, the old saying could go that two things only are forever: death and tax breaks.
One area where momentum for tax reform is building is with corporate inversions. Inversions happen when a US-based corporation moves its business address overseas in order to avoid paying US taxes (which are not even that high in the first place), all while enjoying public investments supported by US taxpayers. Polling shows that voters disapprove of tax inversions, and virtually everyone wants Congress to act on them.
10. Overcome Political Gridlock
Are any of the above priorities possible in the current political climate? Party polarization, when Republicans agree with Republicans and Democrats agree with Democrats, is incredibly high in the current Congress. This means legislators are voting along party lines, with very few pieces of bipartisan legislation making their way through Congress. And bipartisan support is truly what’s needed to get anything done. Congress needs to stop letting the political process be hijacked by extreme factions that slow things down. Difficult decisions lie ahead and lawmakers need to ensure they are listening to what their constituents say they want – even if, in some cases, it means diverging from party lines.
This Congress is on its way to becoming the least productive and least popular in recent history. If lawmakers keep up their current rate of passing legislation, they will enact less than 200 laws this session, compared to an average of more than 560 in each of the 20 sessions before it. Lawmakers’ inability to get their act together means reaching an agreement on any of the above issues is anything but a foregone conclusion.