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What Are the Threats of a Lame Duck Congress?

The lame-duck session began Tuesday, with retiring and defeated Members of Congress coming back to Washington to make their last legislative decisions. Because of the lack of accountability to voters, the lame-duck period brings heightened scrutiny.

Congress has 16 working days scheduled between now and the end of the year, though it could add more. Here are some of the contentious issues likely to be debated—and perhaps even decided—during that time.

The “fiscal cliff.” Thanks to legislation previously put in place, a series of federal spending cuts and tax increases is scheduled to go into effect automatically at the beginning of the year. This is widely referred to as a “fiscal cliff”—and the economy is headed right off the cliff. The tax increases, which have been dubbed “Taxmageddon,” would hit middle-class families with an average tax hike of more than $4,100 in the year 2013 alone. It is the largest tax increase ever to hit America, at nearly $500 billion in one year. The effects would be devastating to the economy, as it would hit job-creating small businesses. With the economy in the state it has been, American businesses and individuals cannot stand a tax increase.

Defense cuts. Liberals in Congress set up a plan called “sequestration” that has held the U.S. military hostage to their desire to raise taxes. The original plan was to convince other congressmen to cave to tax increases, thus preventing the cuts to defense. Now those cuts are scheduled to take effect in January, and they would deeply harm our military readiness. During the presidential foreign policy debate, President Obama declared that sequestration “will not happen.” Yet he has already factored these cuts into his fiscal planning for the future—a telling sign. Heritage has suggestions that would fix the sequestration problem without raising taxes.

The debt ceiling. Sound familiar? Yes, the federal government is once more approaching its debt limit—and lawmakers will likely try to raise the limit again. Heritage maintains that the U.S. has no business raising the debt ceiling without getting spending under control.

Disaster funding. Damage from Hurricane Sandy will continue the debate over who should fund disaster recovery efforts. The resources of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are stretched thin after years of record-setting numbers of disaster declarations. The agency has been forced to respond to disasters on the scale of one every one-and-a-half days.

Law of the Sea Treaty or other United Nations treaties. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) had expressed the intention of bringing the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) up for a lame-duck vote. But a group of conservative Senators pledged before the election that they would “oppose efforts to consider a treaty during” the lame-duck session. As a rule, the United Nations treaties would give up pieces of American sovereignty in return for little to no benefits to America. LOST in particular would require the U.S. to hand over royalties from oil and gas development and create a massive international bureaucracy that Americans would be forced to fund.

Cybersecurity. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he wanted to bring cybersecurity legislation back to the Senate floor during lame duck. As Heritage’s David Inserra explains, Reid’s approach “believes that government-set standards and regulations will make the private sector improve its security. They argue that any defense, however flawed or costly, is better than nothing.” At the same time, President Obama has drafted an executive order to put much of the failed legislation into effect. Neither of these would effectively help the nation’s cybersecurity—“There is no way that regulations will be able to keep up with the rapidly changing threat, since it takes major regulations from two to three years to be written.”

Our sister organization, Heritage Action for America, has a newly redesigned website including its blog, The Forge. Check out The Forge and the blog series on Lame Duck Threats, including the subsidy-laden farm bill.

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