Lame-duck Congress faces heavy workload

WASHINGTON - The 2010 lame-duck session of Congress handled a huge workload two years ago, but it may seem like a trifle compared to what's on the agenda for the 2012 lame-duck session.

Foremost on many people's minds is the impending expiration of several tax cuts and tax breaks - which, when coupled with budget deficits and the need to raise the nation's debt ceiling yet again, has led to the popularization of the term "fiscal cliff" to describe the situation.

Catholic advocates have joined a multifaith effort calling for a "circle of protection" around the poorest and most vulnerable Americans.

The effort started in 2011, even before last year's midsummer debt showdown between the Democratic-occupied White House, the Republican-dominated House, and a Democratic-led Senate that had a large Republican minority threatening to invoke filibusters. Not to mention the House-Senate "Gang of Six" and the "supercommittee" bids to present palatable debt-relief options after the 2010 Simpson-Bowles debt reduction commission's recommendations went largely ignored by lawmakers.

During a Nov. 20 conference call with reporters, "circle of protection" advocates pointed out that during debate on last year's Budget Control Act, they were able to take off the table programs benefiting the poor, and were hopeful they could repeat that success in the month ahead.

Any fiscal deal "must be comprehensive and balanced," said Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. bishops. "It must involve deficit reduction. It must require tax increases. It must protect the poor and vulnerable." And to accomplish all that, she added, "it must be bipartisan."

The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, wanted to debunk the notion that government programs that help the poor promote dependency.

"My father was a hardworking man. He had two jobs. He was a pastor," he said.

"My mother was working. We were on food stamps. It helped us," Rev. Salguero added. "If it didn't help us, we'd go hungry. It's not anecdotal, it's straight from human experience."

But deficit cutting isn't the only item on the agenda.

For one thing, there's still a farm bill to approve. The measure is a reauthorization bill that comes up every five years or so.

The National Catholic Rural Life Conference is a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "There's a lot of groups out there, sustain agriculture groups, farm groups, conservation groups, even the administration and folks in the Democratic wing saying we need a 2012 farm bill in the current year," said rural life conference policy adviser Bob Gronski. "But the reality is how do we get it done?"

There's not a lot of time left on the calendar, he added, even if Congress were to meet between Christmas and New Year's Day to attend to the nation's business.

The House has not yet had floor debate on the bill its Agriculture Committee approved, and which looks markedly different from the Senate version, Gronski told Catholic News Service.

The farm bill's scope is wide-ranging, covering not only American farms, big and small, but also the nation's school lunch programs and the Supplemental Nutritional and Assistance Program, or SNAP, the renamed food stamp program, which benefits families in need. Conservation and trade are among the farm bill's other components.

"There's a game of chicken that's being played here," Gronski said. "Most likely there's going to be an extension but what kind of extension I can't say." He outlined the options: a three-, six-, or 12-month extension, either "clean" with no changes or modified with disaster relief for livestock producers who suffered from the spring and summer drought, the restoration of a dairy insurance that expired, and/or funds for a conservation security program backed by the rural life conference.

If any debt deal is struck, all of that will likely have to be done with less money. And that doesn't even address food and nutrition programs, whose outlays spiked since the recession hit nearly five years ago.

In another arena, the U.S. bishops are behind the CAP Act. CAP stands for Community Access Programming, which would safeguard the public, educational and governmental access channels that were established when cities and counties first awards franchises to cable operators.

One change the bill promotes is the use of funds set aside for access channels to be used for operational expenses. Currently, the money can be used only for capital expenses; most cable systems built their community access studios long ago. It also will keep some channels from going dark, a byproduct of statewide franchising laws that took cable TV out of municipalities' jurisdiction.

"The Catholic bishops support (public) access television. These local channels are the voice of the community in an era of increased media consolidation," said Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the bishops' Communications Committee, in a May 15 letter to House members backing the bill.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970