President Obama and Congress should share a common New Year's resolution to: to work together to solve the nation's problems. There are a number of high profile and challenging issues to address, including reforming immigration law, the Affordable Care Act and even tax policy. The question is, can the executive branch and the legislative branch succeed where so many of us fail at keeping our resolutions?  

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President Obama and Congress: A New Year’s Resolution

Tue Dec 30, 2014

Eat healthy. Exercise regularly. Save more. Get organized. Quit smoking. Most of us make New Year’s resolutions. And while many succeed, “extenuating circumstances” sometimes trip us up.

In Washington DC the Republican-controlled Congress and President Obama share a promising resolution for 2015: to work together to solve the nation’s problems. The question is, will extenuating circumstances intervene?

There is no shortage of opportunities for Congress and the President to work together. Topping the list may be immigration reform legislation. President Obama in November issued an executive order granting temporary legal status to 5 million illegal immigrants, a controversial step necessitated he said by the failure of Congress to enact legislation.

The President essentially put the ball in Congress’s court to pass immigration reform legislation that could ratify the President’s action or even expand it, e.g., by creating a pathway to citizenship for the entire 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

While Congress is expected to consider limited immigration legislation, extenuating circumstances could trip up cooperation, including, ironically, that the President’s executive order has basically “solved” the immigration problem. With almost half the undocumented population now shielded from deportation there may be less urgency to enact legislation.

Another opportunity for White House-Congress New Year cooperation could be in fixing the Affordable Care Act. To be sure, Republican and Democrat ideas for improving the healthcare reform law are very different, with the former determined to scale it back and the latter hoping to expand it.

Nevertheless, common ground could be found to repeal the medical devices excise tax, raise the definition of full-time worker to 40 hours, increase the threshold for a “large” employer to 100 or even 200 full-time employees, clarify that enrollees in federal insurance exchanges qualify for tax credits and maybe even tone down employer mandate penalties. Alas, extenuating circumstances could hamper ACA cooperation, in particular that some Republicans want to repeal the entire law and some Democrats oppose even modest changes.

Tax reform affords another possibility for bipartisan compromise in 2015. Both parties agree that it would make sense to cut income tax rates for the middle class, close tax loopholes that favor higher-income households and fix an unfair and overly complex tax code.

Here again an extenuating circumstance may intervene. Republicans want tax reform to be “revenue neutral,” i.e., to use all the new revenue from closing loopholes to cut income tax rates, while Democrats want the federal government to retain some of the new tax revenue to pay for social programs. If lawmakers can’t compromise on this basic question tax reform is unlikely to get off the ground in 2015.

Another huge area of potential bipartisanship is international trade expansion, specifically the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), an extraordinary free trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and the European Union. Enthusiastically supported by President Obama and the Congressional Republican leadership, T-TIP would seem a “slam dunk” for New Year’s cooperation.

Unfortunately, an extenuating circumstance may be creeping into the celebration. Influential Congressional Democrats, reflecting the views of free trade opponents, have begun to express reservations about a new U.S.-Europe FTA, including about Trade Promotion Authority to “fast track” Congressional consideration. While Republicans seem on board with the President, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Obama will challenge his own party, as President Clinton did on NAFTA in 1993.

If a survey were conducted of New Year’s resolutions, chances are that most likely to succeed would be those who resolve to achieve one goal. “Extenuating circumstances” will probably doom a resolution to lose 10 pounds, exercise regularly, eat healthy, get organized and save more in 2015. The best advice for President Obama and Congressional Republicans, therefore, may be to pick one issue and resolve to work together to make it happen. Let’s hope this time next year we can look back at 2015 and point to at least one national problem that Democrats and Republicans actually worked together to solve. Happy New Year!