No one's expecting much from Congress these days. The chance for any sweeping overhaul of immigration, the tax code, or housing has been written off until at least 2015 — or later. Even more frequently than before, votes are political gestures rather than actual vehicles for legislative change. But there are some issues that legislators have been forced to deal with, despite the gridlock. And how Congress acts on them — or doesn't — has real ramifications for the lives of ordinary Americans.
1. Republicans killed unemployment insurance. About 2.7 million jobless Americans have lost their unemployment benefits since December 28, when Congress let federal jobless aid expire. Democrats have tried again and again to renew the assistance and finally passed a bipartisan bill doing so in the Senate, conceding to GOP demands to offset the cost of the benefits. But House Speaker John Boehner has refused to take up the legislation, arguing that it failed to stimulate the economy.
2. Both parties agreed to cut food stamps. Congress agreed to a farm bill that cut $8.6 billion in food stamps over the next decade, which is estimated to hit about 850,000 households nationwide. Governors in a handful of states have resorted to a loophole to get around the cuts, which targeted additional food stamps for residents who also qualify for a subsidized heating program. That's raised the hackles of Congressional Republicans but could help blunt a significant portion of the cuts' impact.
3. Republicans and Democrats have made progress on tax breaks for corporations. Congress also let more than 60 business tax breaks expire in December, funding everything from R&D to special-interests like racehorse owners, NASCAR, and Hollywood. Both parties, however, are heavily expected to come to some kind of agreement to preserve most, if not all of them, without paying for them, as they have nearly every year the tax breaks needed to be extended. With Democratic votes, the House has passed a bill that would make the R&D credit permanent, and the Senate is currently trying to pass a two-year extension of the tax breaks, known as "extenders." The fight is likely to drag on until the lame-duck session following the midterms. But as with the doc fix — which raised Medicare payments for medical providers — when it comes to these annual tax giveaways, Congress generally delivers.
4. Congress is running out of money to fund highway and mass-transit construction, and fast. The federal Highway Trust Fund makes up about one-quarter of all public infrastructure spending on highways and mass transit. It's even more critical this year as an unusually harsh winter has taken a toll on the country's roads. But the federal highway fund is quickly running out of money. Federal officials warn that it will have to begin delaying payments for road and bridge construction sometime this summer unless the government acts, and the White House says 700,000 jobs are at stake. The problem is that much of the money traditionally comes from the federal gas tax, which Congress hasn't raised since 1993. Meanwhile, Americans are using less gas — driving less and using more fuel-efficient cars — while our infrastructure needs continue to grow. Congress has previously relied on stopgap measures to tide the fund over, and it's likely to do so again rather than come up with a long-term solution.
5. Congress is also poised to cut other housing and transportation programs. The two-year budget that Congress passed in January set overall funding levels for federal programs. But legislators still need to decide how to dole out the money in the budget, which takes effect on October 1. And they have even less to work with than expected for housing and transportation due to an unexpected revenue shortfall from the Federal Housing Administration. House Republicans have proposed to cut Amtrak funding, and TIGER grants for road, rail, port, and transit projects, as well as funds that support rental assistance and housing construction for low-income Americans. Democrats won't like the cuts, but they'll probably be forced to make some tough trade-offs to accommodate the lower spending cuts.