Washington's Full Slate

The Washington, D.C., agenda will shape international commerce and transportation in 2013. November’s elections failed to provide any true shifts in the Washington power structure, with the Senate and White House staying Democratic, and Republicans retaining control of the House.

At first glance, this might suggest another two years of legislative stalemate, but we think not. Several big questions remain: Will the parties agree on tax increases and entitlement cuts? Will the Senate and House start working together, across party lines? In the Senate, it appears 60 votes will still be required to get anything done, and neither party has that many. Nonetheless, members of Congress and President Obama know they need to dig in and get the job done. There is a lot to do.

Congress this year will have to deal with issues left unresolved from 2012, and there are many — starting with components of the so-called fiscal cliff: big-ticket items such as tax rates and spending levels.

For the international shipping industry, though not yet acutely visible to the American public, another “cliff” looms: the chance for labor disputes at our nation’s ports, disrupting or even bringing international commerce to a standstill. If that happens, President Obama will have to intervene if he wishes his legacy to be economic recovery, as opposed to unending recession.

Rather than a dramatic “Grand Bargain,” Congress and the White House will work gradually to develop a compromise on tax increases, spending cuts and reform of entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They will agree to a “framework” for deficit reduction, leading to comprehensive tax reform enacted this year, and a plan for defense cuts to take effect over the next 10 years.

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A long list of lower-profile, but no less important, items fill the plate, including a sweeping cyber security bill, a package of tax extenders (that could include an extension of the renewable energy production tax credit), a package of temporary import duty suspensions, the Farm Bill, a Water Resources Development Act, the National Defense Authorization Act and countless other items left unfinished from the recently completed 112th Congress.

President Obama will focus on his legacy, and with the next election not until 2014, members of Congress will have a year or more to build a record on which to run for election. This means the first six to 12 months of the 113th Congress not only will be busy, but productive as well.

Congress also will focus on infrastructure investment, including drafting a new highway and transit bill — and figuring out how to pay for it — and funding water transportation infrastructure, trademark protection, energy production, immigration reform, tribal issues and trade.

The Executive Branch can initiate action on many issues, often without congressional approval. Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a comprehensive trade agreement among Australia, Brunei, Darussalem, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico and Canada, will kick into high gear. Executive Branch agencies will be doling out millions of dollars in grant money.

The Obama administration also will pick up the pace of regulatory activity. Informal estimates say the Environmental Protection Agency is sitting on about a dozen new major regulations impacting the coal, gas and oil industry that are completed and ready to roll out the door. There are also outstanding labor rules and looming legislative deadlines for the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill, all of which were delayed until after the November election. In fact, the National Federation of Independent Business estimates there are more than 4,100 regulations in the pipeline.

After a frenetic December to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” we could see 2013 become one of the busiest and most productive sessions of Congress in years.  

Peter Friedmann is executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition in Washington. Contact him at executivedirector@agtrans.org.

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