WASHINGTON — Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to confront a wide array of issues screaming for attention before the end of the year, among them national farm policies and the looming “fiscal cliff.”
One of the most pressing matters is the part of the fiscal cliff known as the sequester — automatic, across-the-board cuts that would hit domestic programs but fall heavily on defense spending, Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, told The World-Herald.
Inaction could hammer military communities and defense contractors particularly hard, including those around Offutt Air Force Base, Latham said.
“All the contracts that would be broken, the interference in medical research ... and student loans, all of those things,” Latham said. “What happens to reimbursement on Medicare for physicians?”
The other half of the fiscal cliff involves the expiration of George W. Bush-era tax cuts. And more than just income taxes are scheduled to rise. Taxes on investment income would go up, as would inheritance taxes, and more families could be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax.
Experts warn that the combination of budget cuts and tax increases could send the country into another recession.
The farm bill is another area that needs immediate attention. The previous farm bill expired at the end of September. As farmers look ahead to planting season, they — and their bankers — need to know what government policies will be in place, he said.
Latham, a friend of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, expressed confidence that Congress would hash out something on the farm bill. He and most other farm-state lawmakers would prefer a full five-year farm bill, but he said a one-year extension might be necessary.
Congress' to-do list also includes a new defense authorization bill, passed in each of the previous 50 years but unfinished in 2012, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., recently pointed out. He also called for the lame-duck Congress to deal with stalled cybersecurity legislation. He described House inaction on the farm bill as “cruel and unusual.”
“One would hope that the House would come to its senses on the farm bill and that the speaker would find a way to move it forward,” Nelson said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and his aides have spent much of their time in recent weeks addressing the fiscal cliff. Johanns is a member of the bipartisan working group known as the Gang of Eight that has been looking for compromise solutions to federal budget problems.
The group met for three days last month in Mt. Vernon, Va. Johanns described the gathering as helpful. He said the group wasn't looking to come out of that with firm plans, however, because it wanted to avoid getting caught up in the presidential race. Now, he said, the members can get down to brass tacks.
“We'll see what happens,” Johanns said.
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