Legislative Lowdown: The calm before the spending storm

Brian Darling Liberty Government Affairs
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With the political conventions distracting the American people from the spending in Washington, D.C., one thing is for sure: Washington is bracing for a hurricane of spending in September and after the elections.

The Obama Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent a document to Capitol Hill this week requesting that “anomalies” in the budget be fixed in a Continuing Resolution (CR). Congress will have to pass a CR by the end of September to keep the government running into next year.

The OMB document’s purpose is to inform Congress of technical issues that need to be dealt with in a CR. Yet it seems to have become a mechanism for partisan political games. The CR is supposed to fund the government for a few months at the same levels as last year.

The “anomalies” document is supposed to point out technical fixes to appropriations and the law to keep the government running smoothly. But the Obama document goes much further than technical changes. It urges Congress to bust the budget by including a massive farm bill in the CR.

This OMB document is evidence that the administration will make the farm bill a big issue when Congress comes back into session in the second week of September. The first item listed in the OMB anomalies document is a reauthorization of a farm bill that locks in a massive expansion of food stamps. As Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) argues, the pending farm bill is a 60% increase over the 2008 farm bill. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) argues that this bill will authorize $82 billion on food stamps for next year alone. This is one budget-busting idea that shouldn’t be considered in a CR.

Ethanol mandate harming consumers

Another issue complicating the passage of a farm bill is an emerging ethanol mandate controversy in Congress. Congressional Quarterly reports that Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is pledging to push for a legislative waiver of the Environmental Protection Agency’s ethanol production mandate.

Farm states are being hammered by a drought that is hampering corn production. Much of the corn that is being produced is being used for ethanol production instead of for human consumption and feed — as much as 40%, according to U.S. News.

The EPA has the power to waive the Renewable Fuel Standards that mandates a percentage of ethanol be used in gas. That would reduce corn prices. But many worry that the EPA will not waive the mandate. Members of Congress from corn-producing states support the mandate, while members from states that use corn for feed oppose it.

Right now, Congress subsidizes farming while at the same mandating that ethanol be used to lower carbon emissions. These policies work at cross-purposes. A better idea would be to stop subsidizing farmers and stop requiring a percentage of inefficient ethanol be put in the tanks of American cars.

Lame-duck spending

Many wonder what’s going to happen after the elections in a lame-duck Congress. After the elections, there will be members who are free from the wrath of voters. Many worry that, free from the constraints of a pending election, Congress will embark on a lame-duck spending binge.

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency and Republicans gain control of the Senate, there may be a motivation to clear the agenda for Romney in 2013. One would think that a defeated Barack Obama wouldn’t be very helpful, unless Congress sent him legislation that increased some spending. Under this scenario, it is likely that not much good would get done in the lame-duck period.

If President Obama wins a second term and the Senate remains in Democratic hands, expect a very active Congress to compromise on a number of issues. The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts would not get wholly reauthorized. Congress would try to clear its agenda of pending spending bills. This scenario would prove very dangerous for the taxpayer.

Regardless of who wins the 2012 presidential election, conservatives need to keep a very close eye on Congress in a lame duck.

Brian Darling is Senior Fellow for Government Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).