2015 US Congress Backed into a Corner, for the Better


Español When Republicans swept into power in the US Senate after November’s elections, it looked like all was lost for the president. Sabers began to rattle, and resistance on topics like immigration began to rise once again in the rhetoric coming out of offices across the Hill.

Gridlock for two more years felt like it was not only likely but certain.

As we now enter the new year, this remains the trajectory. Expect many bills to be passed by Congress for the sole purpose of forcing a presidential veto and scoring points with the GOP base, but achieving little else.

Yet there is also hope and opportunity within the next two years of US federal politics. It comes because a number of trends are converging that will force Congress to act in a real way to fix problems that can no longer be pushed to the future.

The most prominent of these are problems arising from shortfalls in various trust funds for programs like Social Security Disability Insurance. SSDI is simply running out of money, as more people have joined in the wake of the recent recession, and judges have had a hard time turning claimants away. This, combined with weak oversight, has meant that the disability roles have swelled and show no sign of shrinking any time soon, all while the money meant to pay for the program dries up.

Congress will be forced to act on the politically toxic issue eventually, and this seems like the year that reforms will happen out of necessity if nothing else.

SSDI Recipients as a percentage of population,  Heritage Foundation
Ballooning SSDI recipients as a percentage of population compel reform.

The Highway Trust Fund is in a similarly dire situation. The current funding mechanism in place expires in May, so Congress will be forced to deal with a second hot-button issue in the coming months.

This will not be easy, as both cutting transportation spending and raising the gasoline tax (which funds the HTF) are political nonstarters. Moreover, any bailout from the General Fund must be offset by cuts elsewhere, and easy cuts are increasingly hard to find.

Yet something must be done, and with the fund all but exhausted, they cannot delay the issue much longer. Expect another short-term patch to be passed, maybe with better rules for public-private partnerships on highway projects.

Although such a modest proposal is most likely, there is also the possibility of a long-called-for increase in the gasoline tax, with the blow softened by low gas prices. Yes, spending cuts and an end to transfers from the HTF for mass transit would be the best solution, but the situation we currently face is so unsustainable that any long-term fix would be desirable relative to the series of short-term solutions we have seen recently.

A final notable issue that has received less attention is criminal-justice reform. The tide has largely turned on the issue, and there has been a rising tide of bipartisan support, although that doesn’t guarantee passage.

In particular, support for spending on criminal justice appears to be falling, meaning that cuts could come as a result of seeking to reallocate money to more politically important fixes such as those above. It is not unforeseeable that we will see some reforms to reduce the size of the prison population, based around the notion that money could be best used elsewhere.

While the expectations are low for the incoming Congress, some issues can no longer go unaddressed. SSDI and the Highway Trust Fund are at the top of the list. Amid all the political posturing and election gamesmanship running up the the 2016 election, some actual policy must be made.

Time’s up. For these issues, there’s no kicking the can down the road.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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