Members of Congress have returned to their homes for the holidays, fresh off of passing a fat tax cut aimed mostly at wealthy Americans.
We sincerely extend our good wishes. We disagree with many votes our lawmakers cast, but we don’t doubt their hard work and their focus on the nation’s problems.
At the same time, there was probably too much self-congratulation in the closing hours of the 2017 session. Lawmakers have left themselves a difficult to-do list for the first months of 2018:
▪ Congress must decide if it wants to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, and if so, by how much.
▪ It must decide whether to lift the spending caps for the military and for non-military programs and also consider what that could mean for the nation’s debt.
▪ Immigration reform and the fate of so-called Dreamers (children who came to America illegally with their parents) remain unaddressed. The White House and Republicans may try to increase funding for a border wall.
▪ The Children’s Health Insurance Program needs a year-long extension, or 9 million kids may lose health coverage.
▪ Victims of hurricanes and wildfires are awaiting more help from Washington.
▪ Supporters of Obamacare want additional payments to shore up crumbling insurance markets.
▪ The rules for electronic surveillance are under review.
There will an enormous temptation for members of the House and Senate to cram most of these items, or all of them, into one huge bill, probably in January or February.
That would be a mistake.
The desire to embed the spinach in the ice cream is understandable. Increasingly, it’s a way for leadership to cobble together majorities for must-pass bills by putting goodies alongside tougher issues.
It’s also a way for the minority party to get at least part of what it wants.
Vote-trading makes sense in bills dealing with one subject. If Congress wants to compromise on Dreamers in order to pass a broader immigration bill, we would support that approach.
But cramming several unrelated policy decisions into one massive piece of legislation is wrong. It turns policy into an unsolvable Rubik’s Cube in which each member — or a small minority — can extort concessions until a bare majority can be cobbled together.
That makes it virtually impossible for voters to know precisely where a legislator stands. Is a vote for a massive spending bill based on support for CHIP, military spending or a border wall? When everything is stuffed into one bill, who can tell?
Republicans aren’t to blame for this dilemma. Democrats have pursued a similar approach, both in Congress and in the White House. It has led to short-term spending bills, stop-gap measures, then a bloated, indefensible monstrosity at the end.
If CHIP needs an extension, extend it. If Obamacare insurers need federal support for premium subsidies, approve it. If the military is underpaid or weapons systems are underfunded, Congress should hold an up-or-down vote.
And deals could still be reached. Democrats could trade Dreamer aid for increasing the debt ceiling, for example. They’d just be in different bills.
Breaking tough problems into smaller decisions can clarify options and lead to better legislation. It also helps voters see precisely where their representatives stand.
Those are important goals for Congress in 2018. After members reconvene in January, they should embrace a one-problem-at-a-time strategy.