Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.
The Tortoise & the Hare…
The U.S. Senate has kicked off 2023 at a glacial pace—even by Senate standards. As the headline in “Roll Call” dutifully reports, “Senate’s Slow Start to 2023 Rolls On.”
It’s true. After convening January 3, the Senate promptly took a 19-day recess, returning last week to take just two roll call votes. That slow cadence elicits grumbles from senators and staff alike. Members of Congress who fly back to Washington each week like to be productive when they’re here, and holding members in town without meaningful votes grows old quickly.
It wasn’t all quiet: the Senate Judiciary Committee held a Taylor Swift-inspired hearing on Ticketmaster’s potentially monopolistic business practices… Intelligence committee members sought, unsuccessfully, to review classified documents found at President Biden’s house… And there were some machinations within the Republican Conference related to finalizing committee assignments. Expect word of those assignments to trickle out this week—with some surprises, I’ve heard. Legislative activity will pick up once the committees organize and get to work.
On the other side of the Capitol dome, the House has a pep in its step. House leaders were remarkably productive as they made good last week on their promise of a more open amendment process. Passage of legislation to promote energy production after multiple days of debate and 78 amendments—a process unheard of in the House in recent years—is a positive sign. Enforcing two-minute votes on the floor kept members on their toes and set a good precedent for the future. More amendments and more voting will eventually produce uneven results, but allowing legislators to legislate is good for the health of the institution in the long run.
Both the House and the Senate are scheduled to be in session this week and next.
Legislative Roadmap to Follow…
Last week THE MONDAY BRIEF outlined four categories of legislation: Must Pass, Big Ticket, Messaging and Member Priority bills.
At the start of the year, Must Pass and Big Ticket items together create a useful legislative roadmap for the year ahead. For members and staff, these bills are vehicles on which they can try to hitch their own priorities. Citizen advocates and lobbyists alike will spend considerable time and energy attempting to shape the outcome of these bills. For the media, legislative action here creates a narrative that helps describe the work of a divided Congress in the early stages of the 2024 presidential contest.
While specific legislation hasn’t been introduced, it’s coming. For now, here are seven areas to watch for “must pass” and “big ticket” legislative items this year, described in straightforward terms:
Debt Limit Increase (Must Pass)—Congress must increase the statutory limit on the government’s ability to borrow money, which was reached earlier this month. To prevent a default, the Treasury Department is temporarily exercising “extraordinary measures,” which is akin to paying some bills and not others. A vote to increase or suspend the debt limit will be necessary by June. With $31 trillion in debt on the books, House Republicans will use the debt limit vote as leverage to trim future spending. This is the key legislative fight in the first half of 2023.
Annual Appropriations Bills (Must Pass)—These bills—whether passed as a single Omnibus package or, as House Republicans wish, 12 individual bills—dictate the discretionary spending of the federal government, which is about 30 percent of all spending. (About 63 percent is mandatory spending like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and 7 percent is interest on that $31 trillion in debt referenced above.) Spending bills are potential vehicles for a host of policy riders and legislative provisions that otherwise would not see the light of day. These bills will be tough to pass, but failure to do so results in a government shutdown.
National Defense Authorization Act (Must Pass)—The annual NDAA sets Pentagon priorities and authorizes spending on defense programs and personnel. Congress has passed the NDAA every year for more than six decades. This year, the big issues will likely include the topline amount of authorized spending (in light of other spending cuts and inflation), continued support for Ukraine, competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region, and the use of rapidly advancing commercial technology that could benefit the warfighter.
The Farm Bill (Big Ticket)—The Farm Bill provides lawmakers an opportunity to periodically and comprehensively review all of the nation’s agriculture and food safety programs. Provisions impacting commodities, trade, and crop insurance will take center stage, but the legislation will also carry titles devoted to rural development (including broadband deployment) and food stamp programs. The legislation, which may exceed $1 trillion in authorized spending, runs on four or five-year cycles. It’s up for reauthorization this year. Expect a big fight.
“Big Tech’ Legislation (Big Ticket)—Republicans and Democrats both have concerns, albeit different ones, about the rising influence and power of a handful of “big tech” firms, including Apple, Meta (Facebook), Google and Amazon. Right or wrong, the legislative vehicles to take on Big Tech will focus on anti-trust and data privacy legislation. In the Senate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been a leader on the antitrust push, which received considerable attention in the last Congress but ultimately fizzled out. Some observers believe this is an area of potential bipartisan agreement. On the other hand, voters like iPhones and next-day Prime deliveries.
FAA Reauthorization (Must Pass, or extend)—The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization expires at the end of September. Issues on the table include questions related to certification processes, the use of drones in U.S. airspace, commercial space access, and updating technology after the January 11 Notice to Air Missions system malfunction that delayed flights across the country. This bill could become a catch all for a slew of other aerospace provisions.
Sec. 702 Reauthorization (Big Ticket)—The law that provides an important surveillance tool used by the Intelligence Community to track foreign agents, spies, and terrorists is set to expire at the end of 2023. Sec. 702 allows the NSA, CIA, and FBI to tap into the communications of a foreign person reasonably believed to be on foreign soil. The last reauthorization was hard fought, and a bipartisan compromise in 2020 on other surveillance authorities failed. Progressives and right-wing conservatives will oppose Sec. 702 reauthorization without changes to the law.
THE MONDAY BRIEF will regularly publish a running tally to track progress on these important bills, adding to the list as events warrant.
- The Federal Reserve will meet for two days this week, and many expect a quarter-point interest rate hike to further slow inflation. Past increases have been half-point and three-quarter-points. The 30-year fixed rate mortgage averaged 6.13 percent last week; a year ago it was 3.55 percent.
- The U.S. Air Force has not yet announced a final decision on the permanent location of Space Command Headquarters, despite a key General saying last November that a final decision was due “shortly.” Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper met with Secretary of Defense Austin about the decision last week. They “agreed with DoD that politics should have no role in the Space Command basing decision process,” the senators said in a statement.
- Of note to those with interest in facilities like Redstone Arsenal or Maxwell Air Force Base, the Senate confirmed Brendan Owens to be Assistant Secretary for Energy, Installations and Environment, an office with a host of management and oversight responsibilities over military facilities, including base realignment and closure activities. President Biden’s nominee has worked previously at the “the intersection of health, equity, and climate issues in the built environment.” The vote was 60-35. Sens. Tuberville and Britt both voted no.
- Rep. Jerry Carl (R-AL01) won a seat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, which has control over USDA and FDA spending.
- The House is the focus of most attention on the debt limit, but the Senate must also agree. Twenty-four senators, including Sens. Tuberville and Britt, put down a marker in a January 27 letter to President Biden. “We do not intend to vote for a debt-ceiling increase without structural reforms to address current and future fiscal realities, actually enforce the budget and spending rules on the books, and manage out-of-control government policies,” the senators wrote.
- Air Mobility Command General Gen. Mike Minihan said in a leaked internal memo to troops: “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight” with China over Taiwan “in 2025.” Air Mobility Command has control over tanker and cargo aircraft. The memo included some unusually heated rhetoric. Michael McCaul, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said yesterday in response to Minihan’s memo: “I hope he’s wrong as well. I think he’s right, though, unfortunately.”
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].