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How Much Can Congress Cram into a Post-Election Session?

Peter Larkin Shelby Report Independent GrocersIn case you haven’t picked up on it yet, Congress’ post-election session is slated to address a myriad of major ­issues, ranging from avoiding automatic cuts set in motion after the failure of the Supercommittee to preventing a major tax increase on millions of Americans and businesses when the existing ­individual rates expire on Dec. 31. Will they, or more appropriately, can they, actually get anything accomplished during a post-election session? In reality, what gets ­accomplished in the lame duck session hinges on the results of one national event: the 2012 elections.

The Congressional work period that occurs between the end of Election Day and the start of a new Congress is ­referred to as a “lame duck” session. Some lame duck sessions are held for formality purposes only, deferring significant matters to the succeeding Congress, especially when the majority party ­realized an even stronger majority as a result of the elections. Many times, the purpose of a lame duck is to finish up work on ­appropriations matters. This year’s lame duck session promises to be anything but routine given the enormous agenda ­already coming together.

The political climate in Washington has become so toxic and partisan, with all focus clearly now on the 2012 elections, that any issue of significance, ever so slightly controversial, is ­simply being punted to the lame duck session. Let’s take, for example, addressing the current individual tax rates that are set to expire on Dec. 31 or the current estate tax rate/exemption that also will expire on the same date. Congress has not even seriously tried to address these provisions, effectively ­forcing both tax issues to be taken up after the elections.

Averting the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts that were put in motion when the Supercommittee failed to achieve $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction will be a major focus for lawmakers during the lame duck session. Without action, the Department of Defense alone is slated to face an additional $500 billion in cuts across the board over the next 10 years, while non-defense programs also will face the chopping block. Appropriations committees are working to offset, or find savings in others areas to avoid, the cuts. N.G.A. has been particularly focused on ­programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and WIC to ­ensure any potential funding cuts are avoided or at least ­moderated.

These issues alone are enough to keep Congress tied up for months; however, Congress needs to also address a slew of temporary tax provisions that expired at the end of 2011. These include a number of provisions that are important to ­retailers and wholesalers, such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), 100 percent bonus depreciation, the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program and increased expensing of up to $500,00 in equipment, to just name a few. N.G.A. has continued to call on Congress to extend all of these provisions through the end of the year, but again it appears as if the ball will be punted to the lame duck ­session unless leaders can be convinced to address the provisions before then.

The million-dollar question that no one can answer today is whether Congress can actually get anything done during the lame duck. It all really does depend on the results of the 2012 elections. If Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin and win control of the Senate by a at least a handful of seats, and President Obama is defeated, there will likely be a push by Republicans to put off as much as possible for the next Congress and new president. If the Republicans keep the House by a comfortable margin, win the Senate by only a few seats, and President Obama is re-elected, there will likely be more of an effort to address the major issues in the lame duck session since not much will really change in January.

So it’s not hard to see why Congress continues to suffer painfully low approval ratings and why many American businesses are hesitant to invest capital and hire workers without knowing what their tax liability will be after the end of the year. Frustrations abound, N.G.A. continues to look for opportunities to advance proposals and initiatives that support independent retail grocers and wholesalers and provide an opportunity for these entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and hire workers. Even amid what may seem like total gridlock, we must continue to focus on alternative routes and ­options to achieve our goals.

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