Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.
Getting down to business…
The House of Representatives and the Senate are both in session this week—together for the first time since January 3. Expect a flurry of activity as Members introduce new bills and re-offer old ones.
Last Congress, Members introduced an eye-popping 17,812 bills and resolutions, the most since the late 1970s. That’s nearly 600 per legislative day.
How do lawmakers keep track of that many bills?
Easy: they don’t.
In practice, Congress is a reactive body, and lawmakers spend most of their time dealing with the relatively small number of bills that have come before them because of something beyond their control: the leader’s floor agenda, the wishes of a committee chairman, a groundswell of interest by constituents, or the lobbying from associations and businesses. Everything else—which is the vast majority of legislation—is largely ignored unless there is a specific reason to “get smart” on the bill or issue: an office meeting, incoming correspondence, or the occasional media question.
That’s why communicating with Capitol Hill is so important. Congressional offices don’t have the bandwidth to track thousands of bills, and they can’t solve problems or act on legislation they don’t know about. Good advocates raise issues and provide strong arguments for why bills should be supported or opposed. On Capitol Hill, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease.
Members and staff also develop an instinct for quickly decoding what matters and what doesn’t. One informal system is to put legislation into one of four buckets:
“Must Pass” legislation represents the gearworks of government, and most people on Capitol Hill have a general awareness of where these few bills stand procedurally at all times. At some point the “must pass” legislation will drive the agenda in Washington, as failure to act on these bills is perceived as having profoundly negative consequences. Examples include the 12 annual spending bills or, in the alternative, an omnibus spending package, as well as the annual NDAA defense bill. The drivers of these bills are usually the majority’s leaders in both chambers, and the White House. The chances of enacting a “must pass” bill are high—eventually.
“Big Ticket” items are consequential bills that, due to current events, White House priorities, or the expiration of existing laws, become front burner items. They are usually broad in scope and require a lengthy period of public debate, hearings, and negotiations before the voting starts. Whether by constituents or the media, every Member will be asked to comment on these bills at some point; staff pay close attention even if they are not necessarily directly involved. Examples include the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill, the Trump Administration’s tax bill, the “Farm Bill,” or legislation to regulate “Big Tech.” The President, congressional leaders and key committee chairmen, and “gangs” of influential members all drive these bills forward. Their chances of success are fair, and only then after a lot of politicking.
Messaging Bills are introduced to drive public discourse and put Members on the record for political purposes. Messaging bills tend to get a lot of public attention, but staff spend relatively little time here because everyone recognizes the bills are unlikely to become law. Examples might include social or cultural bills on abortion or gay rights, some immigration legislation, and most balanced budget bills. The communications and political consultants are the ones pushing these votes, and the chance of enacting most messaging bills is close to zero—but that’s not the point. These bills often become the subject of future campaign ads or even used to fundraise.
The largest bucket contains legislation relating to Member Priorities. These bills can be on nearly any subject, are usually the product of study and work over fairly lengthy periods of time, tend to be narrow in scope, and are often drafted in manner designed to make a real-world difference. If noncontroversial, legislation can be passed by Unanimous Consent in the Senate (i.e., no Senators objects) or fast tracked under the Suspension of the Rules in the House (i.e., a two-third majority votes in favor). Another strategy is attaching the bill to a “must pass” or “big ticket” item. Stand-alone roll call votes on individual bills are increasingly rare. An example might be Sen. Tuberville’s bill to increase life insurance maximum coverage amounts for servicemembers and veterans. As is usually the case, that was driven forward by a single member. Success is mostly likely when the sponsor works to build support and is willing to compromise to address others’ concerns.
Of those 17 thousand bills and resolutions introduced in 2021 and 2022, only about 6 percent were enacted outright, with the substance of another 1 percent or so being incorporated in some way.
The budget will be delivered… eventually…
The submission of the President’s annual budget request traditionally kick starts the budget and appropriations process on Capitol Hill. Federal law requires that the President submit his or her request “not later than the first Monday in February of each year,” but that deadline is routinely missed, as appears will happen again this year.
President Biden accepted an invitation to give his State of the Union address on February 7, so expect a budget sometime after that. A lengthy delay would further jam consideration of appropriations on the Hill at a time when Republicans have pledged to separately consider each of the 12 appropriations bills.
Open season in the House on energy…
The House will reportedly consider energy legislation this week to limit the further drawdown of petroleum from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until the Department of Energy develops a plan to increase the amount of federal land leased for oil and gas production.
- Although federal energy production is often associated with western lands, the government also leases significant tracts on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2006, Congress directed 37.5 percent of royalties generated from leases there to the neighboring states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and their coastal counties. Any change in production in the Gulf sparked from this legislation could impact that revenue. Royalties fluctuate considerably; in FY2022 nearly $35 million came to Alabama.
- Republican leaders promised a more open legislative process, but doing so injects a degree of uncertainty into floor debate that leaders would rather avoid. The slim majority in the House will make it especially tough to keep things on track. For the first time in years, the energy bill will be considered under a modified open rule, meaning Members may offer amendments so long as they are submitted in advance. Beyond the fate of the bill itself, floor activity this week is a bellwether of what is to come.
Alabama Committee Update…
Alabama Daily News covered a number of new committee assignments, but one notable addition came in later:
After securing an important seat on the House Armed Services, Rep. Dale Strong landed a spot on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee which oversees a large swatch of federal research and development programs, as well as NASA. The committee assignment makes sense for the representative of a district home to Huntsville, home to the Marshal Space Flight Center, Cummings Research Park, and numerous science and biotech firms. That will be welcome news to folks engaged in scientific research, development, testing and evaluation.
Expect word on Senate committee assignments to start trickling out in the next two weeks.
- The United States hit its $31.4 trillion debt limit last week. The Treasury Department can avoid a default until June by exercising “extraordinary measures,” which is akin to paying some bills now and putting off others until later. In a letter to Congress, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified leaders that she was suspending payments to certain retirement funds, and urged “Congress to act promptly to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.” The debt ceiling has been raised or suspended nearly 90 times since the Eisenhower Administration. Dealing with the debt limit will be the defining legislative battle of the first half of 2023.
- After eight months of investigating, U.S. Supreme Court Marshal Curley announced that investigators were not able to determine who leaked the Court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Interestingly, the Marshal’s “Report of Findings” notes that the “pandemic and resulting expansion of the ability to work from home, as well as gaps in the Court’s security policies, created an environment where it was too easy to remove sensitive information from the building…” Seems to be a trend these days…
- …The FBI conducted a consensual search of President Biden’s home Friday, finding “six items consisting of documents with classification markings and surrounding material.” This comes after records were found in November at Biden’s office at a Washington “think tank” and in December in the garage of Biden’s home. Attorney General Garland has appointed a Special Counsel to investigate the matter. Another Special Counsel is separately investigating scores of classified materials found at former President Trump’s Mar-a-lago residence.
- Generation Z’rs (age 18-25) did not participate in the 2012 election. By 2022, 9 percent of all voters were Gen Z, of which one in four have Hispanic roots. That is one takeaway from a new NBS poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies that has profound implications. As Gen Z’rs political participation rose, there was a corresponding decrease in the percentage of baby boomers. Twenty-seven percent of Gen Z’rs describe themselves as “very liberal,” which is double the national average.
Stephen E. Boyd is a Partner at Horizons Global Solutions. Previously, he served as a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of Staff for Alabama members in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a Communications Director of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Opinions expressed herein are his own. This news report is not intended to influence or persuade. Email Stephen at [email protected].