Although divided government after the midterms might offer a glimmer of hope for weary fiscal conservatives after years of endless spending, we’re not out of the woods yet. If history is any guide, in fact, the coming lame-duck session won’t be good for taxpayers.
The most urgent priority is finding a deal to keep the government open. Because Congress failed, once again, to agree on spending levels for 2023, President Joe Biden signed a deal in late September — a continuing resolution — to keep the government funded past the end of the fiscal year. That agreement will end on December 16.
Now, members of Congress will have no choice but to come to terms on a new agreement, which also provides an opportunity to tack on even more spending and unrelated priorities. As legislators head out the door, many will take the time to grab as much taxpayer money as possible for their favored priorities along the way. This year could be even worse than normal.
According to a recent Bloomberg report, Democrats are considering what would be a first — a new omnibus funding bill combined with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The latter is the first step in setting the full defense budget for the next fiscal year, and it, too, is behind schedule. The NDAA is typically the largest chunk of spending — aside from government-funding packages — that Congress votes on. Perhaps it’s no surprise that legislators want to combine them.
But these aren’t the only threats to taxpayers. Other risks currently on the table include, among other things, an expansion of the child tax credit, a bad idea that would cost more than $1.3 trillion. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has put the total price tag of all ideas Congress is considering at more than $3.3 trillion over the next decade.
That’s right: $3.3 trillion from a maximum of 44 days in session.
It is not uncommon for the results of congressional midterms to impact government-funding decisions. During recent lame-duck sessions, lawmakers have allowed election results to sway their opinions on the best way to fund the government. This has indeed been the case after each of the last three midterm elections.
But while specific compromises may be beneficial to the outgoing or incoming party in power, they are rarely good for taxpayers. For example, during the 2012 lame-duck session, lawmakers passed what the Wall Street Journal at the time called “the largest tax increase in the past two decades” while modifying existing law to delay planned spending cuts — an action that paved the way for the first of many expensive budget deals. Such an agreement presumably would not have been popular immediately before that year’s election, but the lame duck brought out the worst kind of courage.
This time around, in addition to the need for a deal to fund the government, lawmakers also are considering additional “emergency” legislation to fund other priorities outside of the normal budget process. President Biden is asking for additional funding for Covid-19 and another round for the war in Ukraine.
And it’s not just the president making requests. The Department of Defense (DoD) recently presented a “wish list” to Congress — its second this year — with additional funding demands totaling $25 billion for items such as the much-maligned F-35. Special-interest appeals are coming in, too. The National Defense Industrial Organization recently called for allowing DoD to adjust contracts for inflation, while introduced amendments to the NDAA call for everything from increased spending on aircraft to new subsidies for American manufacturers.
Democrats are also pushing to raise the debt limit in the lame-duck session. Currently, analysts do not project the debt ceiling to be reached for another year, but Democrats, worried that Republicans will use the flash point as an opportunity to exact concessions from President Biden, are attempting to raise the debt ceiling now.
While there are many priorities for incoming lawmakers to consider in the 118th Congress, plenty are still on the docket between now and the end of the year. Legislating during the lame-duck session may be popular because it is a period of less accountability, but taxpayers suffer as legislators benefit.
The hustle and bustle of the holidays tends to provide the perfect environment for even the most fiscally conservative legislators to put up less of a fight, when voters are paying less attention and members are anxious to get back to their families and districts. But taxpayers need accountability now more than ever. Between the threats of shutdown and stubborn inflation, lawmakers would be well served to show true courage and limit their endless appetite to spend.