Time Is Running Out for Big Bills

By the time Congress gets back, there will be little appetite for major legislation before the election.

Yoshino Cherry trees are in bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol on April 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. Washington's famed Cherry Blossom trees are on track to be in full bloom this weekend.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
April 13, 2014, 8:31 a.m.

Law­makers are gone from Wash­ing­ton for their two-week spring break, hav­ing packed with them the chances for big-tick­et le­gis­la­tion through the rest of the year.

Already destined to be one of the least pro­duct­ive Con­gresses in re­cent dec­ades, law­makers seem to have no sense of ur­gency for any­thing, ex­pect per­haps the midterm elec­tion.

“Ac­tu­ally, I think that star­ted in Janu­ary,” com­plained Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Demo­crat on the House Rules Com­mit­tee.

And House Demo­crats aren’t the only ones sug­gest­ing that. “You look ahead, there’s not much go­ing on,” one seni­or House GOP aide said.

In fact, as early as Feb­ru­ary, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas drew the ire of his party’s lead­ers with his can­did ac­know­ledg­ment — after the House passed the debt-ceil­ing bill — that lead­ers were already de­clar­ing the le­gis­lat­ive decks es­sen­tially cleared to al­low plenty of time to cam­paign.

“That’s what our lead­er­ship said; if we get past this one [vote], we’re done un­til the elec­tion,” Huel­skamp said at the time.

To some, there might ap­pear to still be plenty of le­gis­lat­ive work­ing days left. After all, when House mem­bers re­turn to the Cap­it­ol on April 28, their cal­en­dars will of­fi­cially show 54 sched­uled work­ing days be­fore Oct. 2, when they fi­nally break for good un­til the Novem­ber elec­tion.

But 22 of those “work­ing” days are, in real­ity, not en­tire days, be­cause they count late-con­ven­ing ar­rive-in­to-town days and early-ad­journ­ing get-out-of-town days.

Moreover, the rest of the time con­sists largely of three-day weeks with some breaks in-between (such as the en­tire month of Au­gust). The Sen­ate has sched­uled things sim­il­arly, al­though de­tails after Septem­ber have not yet been re­leased.

Des­pite all that, there may still be enough time re­main­ing be­fore Novem­ber to do some le­gis­lat­ing. But the list of items already be­ing taken off the board con­tin­ues to grow, with most deemed too thorny for this Con­gress to com­plete un­til after the elec­tion.

For in­stance, neither the House nor the Sen­ate will move for­ward this year on an over­haul of the na­tion’s tax code — des­pite prom­ises at the start of the con­gres­sion­al ses­sion from House Speak­er John Boehner and oth­ers that it was a No. 1 pri­or­ity, and even as dozens of so-called tax ex­tenders re­main in limbo since ex­pir­ing Dec. 31. There also is little like­li­hood that any com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion-re­form pack­age will be agreed upon and passed by both cham­bers, even if some law­makers hold out hope.

But don’t ex­pect com­plete si­lence.

There will cer­tainly be a lot of time and at­ten­tion paid to one-cham­ber mes­saging bills in the stretch be­fore midterm elec­tions. House Re­pub­lic­ans have already pushed for­ward their own budget plan for 2015, even though spend­ing levels were already agreed upon in the two-year budget deal.

Re­pub­lic­ans also will em­phas­ize their con­tin­ued fo­cus on an agenda for jobs and growth and will con­tin­ue ef­forts to “pro­tect the Amer­ic­an people from the pres­id­ent’s health care law,” Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said. GOP lead­ers say they will un­veil an al­tern­at­ive to the Af­ford­able Care Act, though they stop short of say­ing they will vote on it.

“We are about pro­pos­ing real health care re­form that will be pa­tient-centered,” House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor said be­fore law­makers left for the break last week. “Our com­mit­tee chair­men are work­ing on the is­sues in terms of the kind of re­form we want.”

For their part, Demo­crats in both cham­bers are likely to fo­cus on min­im­um-wage le­gis­la­tion.

Of course, there are also some im­port­ant is­sues that Con­gress must ad­dress.

First in line for at­ten­tion when law­makers re­turn is the must-pass Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, which will prob­ably see ac­tion the week be­fore Me­mori­al Day. Work on that bill is an­ti­cip­ated to be done in con­junc­tion with oth­er meas­ures, such as the de­fense ap­pro­pri­ations bill and the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency re­form bill, though in­tel­li­gence re­form be­fore the elec­tion is not a giv­en.

Law­makers also will face ap­pro­pri­ations bills be­fore the new fisc­al year be­gins on Oct. 1. Be­cause of the pre­arranged fund­ing levels in the budget agree­ment, that might seem eas­ily done. But re­cent his­tory shows Con­gress has had dif­fi­culty meet­ing dead­lines and tends to fa­vor short-term ap­proaches. An­oth­er large om­ni­bus bill that ties sev­er­al spend­ing meas­ures to­geth­er can­not be ruled out.

Con­gress also will have to do something to put more money in­to the High­way Trust Fund for road and re­lated con­struc­tion pro­jects by the end of sum­mer, or those funds might be de­pleted. And a de­cision is due on Sept. 30 on wheth­er to reau­thor­ize the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, re­charter it with re­forms or even wind-down le­gis­la­tion, or simply let it ex­pire. The bank sup­ports loans to over­seas com­pan­ies to help them buy U.S. ex­ports, and many con­ser­vat­ives are sig­nal­ing an­oth­er battle to block its charter.

One seni­or House GOP aide said the real­ity is that there “is not much go­ing on” bey­ond cam­paign­ing. He also pre­dicted that little can really be achieved by Elec­tion Day to help this Con­gress turn around its im­age as one of the least pro­duct­ive in re­cent his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial Résumé of Con­gres­sion­al Activ­ity, a total of 65 pub­lic bills (the term for meas­ures with broad im­pact) were en­acted in­to law in the first ses­sion of this two-year Con­gress over a peri­od from Jan. 3, 2013, to Jan. 3, 2014. That was the low­est one-year out­put for Con­gress since at least 1947, the re­cord shows.

“I think that’s un­for­tu­nate,” House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er of Mary­land said, “be­cause there are some real prob­lems con­front­ing our coun­try and we have an abil­ity as a Con­gress to ad­dress them re­spons­ibly, and we aren’t do­ing it.”

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