A new Congress means a clean slate of bills to introduce and consider in both the House and Senate. (UBS)

Debt Ceiling Extension. Not surprisingly, the debt ceiling (and the anticipated difficulties in raising it) was a primary topic of discussion among lawmakers in Washington this week. While there will be a lot of strategizing and posturing over the next several months, no substantive policy to address the debt ceiling will advance until the summer. Different ideas will be floated as a way to encourage negotiations. For example, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) suggested the creation of a commission to make recommendations on ways to reduce spending, while Senator Manchin also suggested potential reforms to Social Security. However, Congress, particularly the House, isn’t going to seriously decide on the form of a debt ceiling raise it can support until there is the urgency of a crisis. Ideas will come and go over the next few months, and public opinion, politics and economic developments will all play a big role in determining the most viable solution as we get closer to the summer.

Cuts to Social Security and Medicare? Very unlikely. Any serious discussion of balancing the federal budget over the long term has to include changes to the so-called “entitlement” programs of Social Security and Medicare. However, while House Republicans are eager for a fight over federal spending levels, they are less eager to have the fight over these two programs, at least this year. Most House Republicans will publicly say they are not focusing on these two programs but rather on “discretionary” government spending that is subject to annual spending bills. On the other hand, Democrats will argue that discretionary spending is only a small part of the government spending pie and that the entitlement programs are at risk. Efforts to reform both Social Security and Medicare will need to happen on a bipartisan basis. This is more likely to happen later this decade when the programs face even more dire financial challenges. The conditions in Washington today are not ripe for these reforms.

Classified Document Security Woes. Until recently, lawmakers didn’t expect to have to deal with a series of classified information security breaches from former presidents and vice presidents. The problem is bipartisan, although circumstances differ among the four offenders so far (Trump, Biden, Pence and Carter). We would not be surprised to see further revelations, perhaps even from past Presidents Bush and Obama. While certain executive branch officials are able to review classified information at their desks, lawmakers generally need to view such information in secure locations called sensitive compartmented information facilities, commonly referred to as “SCIFs.” The security breaches will certainly be investigated by both the House and Senate, and Congress could advance legislation to make reforms to federal record-keeping and to lower the thresholds for classifying intelligence as classified. Much will depend on whether there are more revelations to come and the sensitivity of information that has been put at risk.

For more, see Washington Weekly, 27 January, 2023.

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Approval date: 1/27/2023

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