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Signs of Congressional Life in an Election Year

Published on February 13, 2024

There’s an old piece of Washington wisdom that says you can’t get anything done in an election year – especially a Presidential election year. But both chambers of Congress have recently showed surprising contrasts to that line of thinking, raising the possibility that major legislation may yet reach President Biden’s desk in 2024.

On the House side, a bipartisan majority recently passed the Tax Relief for American Workers and Families Act. This sweeping tax reform bill would extend several popular business tax deductions created under Republican majorities in 2017, including bonus depreciation and domestic research and development expensing, and a more generous interest limit. These and other business tax provisions were paired with other tax policies more popular on the Democratic side of the aisle, including expansions to the child tax credit, and increased low income housing tax incentives.

Each of the above provisions are temporary, which may account for the broad bipartisan 357-70 support the package achieved – it’s easier to sell a short-term compromise than a permanent one.  But these provisions will have significant (if temporary) benefits for American workers and families, with likely boosts to national GDP and benefits on personal and small business tax returns, including retroactive deductions that can look back several years.

There is also broad support for the way the cost of this bill will be offset, with increased enforcement and controls on the pandemic-era Employee Retention Tax Credit. Of course, using rollbacks of emergency pandemic spending isn’t actually cost neutral, it’s the normalization of a new and higher baseline generated by a national crisis.

As with most tax compromises, the one true loser when everybody wins is the national debt.

The progress of the Tax Relief for American Workers and Families Act on the Senate side remains to be seen, but the significant numbers it drew from both sides of the aisle suggest that lawmakers are hungry to deliver something – anything – from a historically low yield Congressional term. But there is plenty of election year precedent, from the 1986 tax reform to the 1990 budget summit, to suggest this bill will reach the President’s desk this year.

On the Senate side, leaders from both parties made laudable progress toward a bold $118 billion bipartisan deal to provide funding and additional authorities for border security as well as aid to Ukraine and Israel, before former President Trump’s vocal opposition effectively killed the bill. But this bipartisan effort gave rise to a second bill which passed by wide margins by removing the border and adding Taiwan. The determined efforts on both sides of the aisle to get something done recalled previous election year efforts in each of these global hotspots, from the 2022 response to the invasion of Ukraine, to the support provided to Israel in 2006, to President Trump’s signing of the TAIPEI Act in 2020.

It should also be noted that many pieces of border security legislation have also passed in election years, most notably the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Those past efforts, however, did not run up against the odd dynamic of an out of power former President, once again Presidential candidate effectively wielding veto control over his party’s sitting lawmakers. Hard enough for Congress to act with one President looming over the proceedings, let alone two.

Given the different but overlapping coalitions in support of these three funding priorities, this package would likely pass with wide margins if it ever saw the House floor. So too would the border security provisions that deserve a vote in both chambers. Speaker Mike Johnson would do well to note both his own success in passing bipartisan tax legislation, and his opposition’s success in flipping a House seat by pointing to inaction on the border bill. The American people are sending a clear message. They expect Congress to take action on every pressing need – from tax reform, to defending freedom overseas, to ensuring border security at home.

The clock is certainly ticking for both the House tax bill and a Senate security compromise. But the progress of these pieces of legislation stand as further proof that Washington does not and should not take election years off. From the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to the Welfare Reform of 1996, to the bipartisan response to the COVID pandemic in 2020, Congress has proven it can get things done with a looming election on the horizon. Here’s hoping 2024 delivers another such milestone before the silly season begins in earnest.

Cori Smith Kramer is CEO of Center Forward, which brings together members of Congress, not-for-profits, academic experts, trade associations, corporations and unions to find common ground and give voice to the center of the American electorate.