The elections last month made it clear that the Halls of Congress will look a little different in January 2015. Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives, retaining control in that chamber with a historic margin, and took control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans also saw gubernatorial pickups, in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Florida.
While there were some incumbents ousted, (Republican Thom Tillis defeated Democratic incumbent Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina), and a few very close calls, (Democratic Senator Mark Warner narrowly defeating Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia), the outcome of the elections made it clear Americans were tired of gridlock and bickering in Washington. But before the changing of the guard can take place in early 2015, the current 113th Congress needs to address some outstanding policy issues.
During the very brief lame duck session, lawmakers must pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of the year, as well as take action on a series of tax extenders that will expire on December 31st. Provisions related to employer-provided mass transit, wage credit for active military reservists, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and multi-employer pension plan funding rules, will all expire if Congress does not take steps to temporarily extend their tax treatment.
In the new Congress, Republican Leaders have signaled interest in addressing HR public policy issues including immigration reform, labor and employment issues, tax reform, spending and regulatory reform – all of which could significantly impact the HR profession.
While passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill is very unlikely in the 114th Congress that convenes in January, specific provisions addressing concerns of border security, worksite enforcement and a legal workforce could be considered in 2015. Additionally, President Obama is expected to take executive action to address issues pertaining to the nation’s undocumented population before the end of this year.
As Congress considers reforms to the U.S. tax code, employee benefits such as retirement plans, educational assistance and health care benefits may come under scrutiny, due to their tax-deferred status. Any reforms to the tax treatment pertaining to these benefits could have an adverse effect on how HR professionals design and administer retirement plans. Tinkering with tax incentives could discourage employees from saving and could further prevent employers from offering a retirement plan in their workplace.
A Republican-controlled Congress will also focus even more intently on Executive branch activities, particularly executive orders and regulations proposed by President Obama. These include proposed actions on the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime requirements and recent changes to employment practices of federal contractors.
While November’s elections were a “mini-wave” election favoring Republicans, the shifts in each chamber do not guarantee that the 114th Congress will be any more productive than the current Congress. Each party will have to manage priorities within their own caucuses, build consensus among their colleagues, and will most certainly have to compromise in order to pass bills that could be signed into law.
Kathleen Coulombe is Senior Advisor, Government Relations for SHRM. She is on Twitter at @KCnSHRMGA.