WASHINGTON – A number of issues important to UTU members and working families is on tap for debate and vote this week as Congress returns for a lame-duck session.
It is called a lame-duck session because House and Senate members who lost their seats in the Nov. 2 election remain in office until Dec. 31.
It is often said that lame-duck sessions are the most difficult for finding compromise — crucial to the democratic process — because those who lost the election are unhappy and know they are going home; while many Republicans want issues to be held over for the new Republican House majority and smaller Democratic Senate majority to consider when 100 new and largely Republican lawmakers take their seats in January.
Here is a summary of the most important issues to UTU members:
- Although a new — 2011 — federal fiscal year began Oct. 12, Congress has yet to pass a single federal spending bill owing to partisan politics.
Instead, Congress has passed temporary extensions of last year’s spending legislation – the current extension expiring Dec. 3.
Failure to pass new spending legislation – or a further extension of last year’s spending bills until at least March 2011 – could result in the complete shutdown of the Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, National Mediation Board and National Labor Relations Board.
- More than two million long-term unemployed Americans face a loss of jobless benefits Dec. 31 if legislation is not passed extending those benefits. Historically, Congress has extended long-term unemployment benefits when the jobless rate is high.
- Working families face significant increases in their tax bill next year if Congress fails to pass legislation hiking the ceiling on the alternative minimum tax (AMT).
The AMT was enacted decades ago to ensure wealthy Americans, with numerous tax-avoidance schemes, pay some taxes.
When the AMT was originally passed, it was not indexed for inflation. Congress perennially has passed a temporary increase in the income level subject to the AMT, but if it fails to do so, again, during the lame-duck session, 26 million middle-class families could be facing an average of $2,600 in higher taxes when they file federal returns April 15, according to the Associated Press.
- Working families also will suffer if Congress fails to extend the federal income tax deduction for state and local sales taxes, property taxes and college tuition payments before Dec. 31. Otherwise, they will not be allowable deductions when federal taxes are filed April 15.
- Retirees will suffer if Congress fails to prevent a Dec. 1 scheduled 23 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to physicians.
Legislation passed in 1997 provided for formula cuts to such payments; but, each year since, Congress has prevented those cuts from taking effect.
If the lame-duck Congress fails to act, cuts of 23 percent in payments by Medicare to physicians will take place Dec. 1, and another 1.9 percent cut in those payments will take place Jan. 1.
If the cuts are imposed, many physicians say they will stop accepting new Medicare patients.
- Retirees also will lose if the lame-duck Congress fails to approve a one-time $250 special payment to Social Security and Railroad Retirement beneficiaries who will not receive a cost-of-living (COLA) increase in their benefits in 2011 owing to a freeze on regular benefits payments under a formula tied to consumer inflation.
Calling or e-mailing your congressional lawmakers and urging them to focus on these issues would be beneficial. Click on the following link for information on how to identfiy and contact your lawmakers: