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‘Fiscal cliff’ not Congress’ only looming peril

Farm subsidies, cybersecurity among other issues

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2012

When Congress returns to work Tuesday for what is expected to be a hyperbusy lame-duck session, it will have more to worry about than just the looming "fiscal cliff," a series of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled to kick in at the end of the year.

Everything from farm subsidies to physicians' payments, from cybersecurity laws to unemployment insurance benefits, is also on the congressional to-do list. But with about 30 pieces of unfinished business facing Congress, it's unrealistic to assume lawmakers will address all, meaning some likely will be punted into the new year for the next Congress.

When lawmakers bolted Washington in September for the pre-election recess, they uncharacteristically let lapse the massive federal farm bill — setting up the possibility that the nation's complicated, decades-old system of agricultural supports and subsidies could expire.

Multiyear farm bills usually are among the most bipartisan legislative matters on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers from agricultural states and districts — despite party — come together to ensure their success. The Senate easily passed a version earlier this year, but the measure is stuck in the House due largely to intraparty bickering by Republicans.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last month said he was committed to bringing the issue to the chamber floor before the end of the year. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, told the Oklahoma Farm Report last week he is hopeful the Virginia Republican makes good on his promise.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate agricultural panel, also is pressing for action on a new farm bill this year, saying it should be among the House's first postelection priorities.

Some agriculture programs, such as crop insurance, have continued under a separate authorization. And funding for the food stamp program — typically included in the farm bill — was included in a six-month stopgap bill to fund the federal government that Congress passed in September.

But some dairy farmers say they're already feeling a pinch, as the Department of Agriculture's Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which compensates dairy producers when domestic milk prices fall below a specified level, expired after Sept. 30.

Congress likely will pass this year another short-term extension of the so called "doc fix" that Congress routinely renews to keep a 1997 budget-cutting law from biting too deeply into payments for physicians who treat Medicare patients. If not, doctors who treat Medicare patients would see their payments reduced by about 30 percent beginning in January.

Letting the doc fix expire would save the federal government billions of dollars annually, but some doctors have threatened to stop seeing Medicare patients if their payment cuts kick in.

Another late-year congressional ritual is the passing of a one-year "patch" to prevent the alternative minimum tax from biting deeper into the middle class. It was designed decades ago to ensure that a handful of high-income taxpayers couldn't use deductions and credits to eliminate their tax liability. But since it's not automatically indexed for inflation, it increasingly catches middle-class taxpayers.

Congress is likely to enact another short-term AMT patch before the end of the year. But if it doesn't, some married couples earning as little as $45,000 and singles earning as little as $33,750 would be forced to pay the tax.

Many long-term jobless Americans also could stop receiving federal unemployment insurance benefits in January unless Congress extends the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program passed in February.

Since Capitol Hill first created an emergency federal unemployment program in 1958, it hasn't allowed one to end while unemployment rates were above 7.2 percent, said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. With the unemployment rate expected to be about 8 percent at the end of the year when the current emergency compensation program expires, Congress will be pressured to act.

One issue likely to see floor time in the Senate in the coming days is a bill to set security regulations intended to prevent cyberattacks on the nation's infrastructure. A cybersecurity measure failed in the chamber in August after some Republicans and many in the business community portrayed the bill as an excessive government overreach that could stifle commerce. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has vowed to revisit the issue soon after senators return to work Tuesday.

While the 2012 legislative calendar is winding down, neither chamber will start off the lame-duck session with a bang. On Tuesday, the Senate is slated to take up a Sportsman Act, which would increase access to federal land for hunters and fishers. The House, meanwhile, is scheduled to consider four minor or nonpressing bills, including the Asthma Inhalers Relief Act.

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