The tax bill that Congress sent the president this week represents Republicans’ biggest legislative achievement of the first year of the Trump administration. Its policy consequences will be far-reaching, both for individual taxpayers (who will generally see temporary tax cuts) and for corporations (who will benefit from permanent rate reductions). But to focus only on the tax legislation is to ignore what else Congress is leaving in its wake as it leaves for its holiday recess, including unfinished work on the fiscal year 2018 spending bills; temporary, holdover reauthorizations of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the flood insurance program, a veterans’ health care program, and certain government surveillance authorities; and an unresolved fix for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Republicans themselves recognize what this laundry list of unfinished business could mean going forward. As Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) put it, “it’s kinda like leaving a hospital finding out you’re cancer free and getting run over by a Mack truck.”
It’s not just having crossed the finish line that distinguishes the tax bill from Congress’s massive remaining to-do list. The Christmas “deadline” set for the tax legislation by Republican congressional leaders was a rhetorical one; the consequences for not enacting it this year would have been largely political. As we learned earlier this year, the instructions that initiate the filibuster-proof reconciliation process don’t expire until the end of the fiscal year. Provided it met the other requirements of the process, the tax bill would be procedurally-protected through September 2018.
For Congress’s other unfinished business, the consequences of inaction are large. While the government will keep running through January 19, repeated continuing resolutions present federal agencies with harmful uncertainty and create inefficiencies in their work. Delayed action on CHIP, for example, has caused states to begin sending letters to families indicating that their children will soon lose coverage, creating uncertainty for families. While congressional Republicans and President Trump alike have argued that Congress has until March to pass a bill addressing DACA recipients, the structure of the program means that the longer legislators wait, the more current beneficiaries lose their protections.
Historically, Congress has often used deadlines to its advantage. As political scientists Scott Adler and John Wilkerson argue, adopting fixed-term authorization bills guarantees that issues will reappear on the congressional agenda, which, in turn, incentivizes legislators to invest in learning about them. Sometimes these deadlines work to force action, but sometimes, they do not. To be effective, suggest Sarah Binder and Frances Lee, deadlines must impose political costs on individual members; punishing the institution for failure to act is not enough. This year, legislators may feel like temporary extensions get them off the hook, or they may think that there are simply too many unfinished items for voters to generate political pain in response to any one of them.
Polarization has also likely contributed to the breakdown of deadlines as an action-forcing mechanism in Congress. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) was recently quoted describing the Children’s Health Insurance Program as a bargaining chip; Senate leaders, he argued, might want to leverage the program to pass “something else that isn’t as popular as CHIP.” When the parties are so polarized that anything that can attract bipartisan votes is seen as a potential vehicle for moving something less popular, it may reduce the incentive to respond to what’s supposed to be an action-forcing mechanism. If you can extend something temporarily in order to create a better bargaining environment for a different priority in the near future, it gives you a reason to ignore the deadline you are supposed to meet.
So if deadlines didn’t work to force long-term action on issues like CHIP and surveillance authorities in 2017, why was Congress able to meet a purely political one on the tax bill. The emerging journalistic consensus emphasizes the degree to which congressional Republicans felt they needed some sort of big legislative win after their effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. While that was a major motivator, Republicans also benefitted from using a party-line legislative strategy (reconciliation) and the associated procedural advantages. In addition, the issue politics of taxation were also working in Republicans’ favor. In his work on issue ownership, Patrick Egan has documented how action on taxes has been a durable policy priority for Republicans to a greater degree than for Democrats. Elsewhere, my Brookings colleague Vanessa Williamson demonstrates how the orientation of the tax bill towards wealthy interests is the latest step in a long policy path for the Republican Party.
When Congress returns to work in January, its first order of business will not be President Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan or the entitlement reform that Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged is his next priority. Instead, it will be dealing with its holiday leftovers.