Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.
Congress gets back to work on a growing to-do list of high-profile legislation
Both houses of Congress get back to legislative activity this week following the Fourth of July holiday recess. The run up to the traditional August break is always a busy period on Capitol Hill, and the next three weeks will be no exception.
Taking Stock at the mid-point of 2023
Despite all the political rhetoric and bluster, committee hearings, and floor debates, Congress and the President have combined to enact just seven laws this year—well behind the normal pace of lawmaking. During the 118th Congress, laws have been enacted to (1) modify the age requirements for financial assistance for cadets at our nation’s military academies, (2) increase the cost-of-living adjustment for some veterans, (3) improve communications to pilots about the status of air space restrictions, (4) officially terminate the COVID-19 emergency, (5) declassify information pertaining to the origins of COVID-19, (6) block a criminal reform bill that pertained to the District of Columba, and (7) raise the debt ceiling while imposing modest spending cuts.
Some argue that Congress is best when it does the least. Trust me, I get the sentiment.
Nonetheless, Congress must act on certain legislation to keep the gearworks of government running. That includes—most obviously—the annual appropriations bills, without which the government shuts down. It also includes periodic reauthorization of major government programs and activities, which often run on three-, four-, and five-year cycles. The reauthorization process is an opportunity for Congress to evaluate programs, make changes and impose reforms, and address new challenges that have emerged since the last go around.
In January, the MONDAY BRIEF highlighted a number of bills that would be ripe for consideration in 2023. With half the year now in the rearview mirror, let’s take stock of where things stand.
The Farm Bill
Why it Matters: Since the 1930s Congress has approved multi-year agricultural policy bills, now ubiquitously known as the “The Farm Bill,” to authorize USDA programs that address food and farming issues. In the 1970’s, a “nutrition” section of the bill was added to provide support for low-income families through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Today, the Farm Bill also provides robust support for rural development, as well as extensive research and development to help farmers be as productive as possible.
Deadline: The 2018 Farm Bill expires at the end of September.
Status: Traditionally, the agricultural committees on Capitol Hill have been guided less by partisanship and more by regional alliances. But with a price tag expected to exceed $1 trillion for the first time, politicos knew from the start that passing a Farm Bill in an era of closely divided government would be a challenge.
Forecast: Indeed, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently floated the idea of a temporary extension. That won’t hurt too bad in the short term. While Alabama farmers support reauthorization efforts, they also believe it’s more important to get the Farm Bill right rather than rush the process. One area of focus: they’d like to see updates to reference price calculations to account for the higher cost of inputs like fertilizer and diesel fuel. In the meantime, a temporary extension won’t cause any immediate problems.
Why it Matters: Congress must pass each of the 12 annual appropriations bills, either individually or as part of an “omnibus package,” by the end of the fiscal year. Under the Anti-Deficiency Act, failure to do so results in a government shutdown. A work around is a temporary Continuing Resolution, or CR, that continues current spending levels into the next fiscal year. This year, the deal to increase the debt ceiling that Congress passed in late May included an added incentive to act: failure to pass the appropriations bills by the end of the year will result in an additional across-the-board spending cut.
Deadline: 11:59 PM ET on Sept. 30
Status: Neither chamber has approved any of the 12 appropriations bills thus far. (At the committee level, the House appropriations committee has passed six bills: Agriculture, Defense, Energy-Water, Homeland Security, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction/VA. The Senate appropriations committee has approved two: Agriculture and Military Construction/VA.) Complicating matters, the House and Senate are marking up bills at different topline spending levels—essentially, playing off of two different sheets of music. That’ll make harmonizing the bills at the end of the process much harder.
Forecast: Perhaps a surprise is in store, but for now it’s hard to argue that a Continuing Resolution is not in our future.
The National Defense Authorization Act
Why it Matters: The annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sets Pentagon priorities and authorizes funding on defense programs and personnel. This year’s version will pave the way for $886 billion in defense spending.
Deadline: Dec. 31
Status: The Senate and the House armed services committees each approved separate versions of the NDAA last month, and the full House is expected to take up the legislation later this week. The roadmap in the Senate is less clear. (Of note, Chairman Mike Rogers, Rep. Dale Strong, and Rep. Terri Sewell have done a fantastic job putting Alabama’s stamp on the legislation. The MONDAY BRIEF will dissect what the bill means for the state once the dust has settled.) More than 1,400 amendments have been filed in the House ahead of this week’s floor consideration. While many of those will be left on the cutting room floor, cultural war issues like an alleged oversensitivity to discrimination and social injustice in the military, as well as criticism of abortion-related policies at the Department of Defense, could dominate the proceedings.
Forecast: Congress has passed a NDAA every year for more than six decades, and 2023 will probably be no different—though it may be more of a slog than usual given some of the thorny issues in play. For many years, the goal was to finalize the NDAA before the August break, but that seems unlikely.
Why it Matters: 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 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the NSA, CIA, and FBI to tap into the communications of a foreign person reasonably believed to be on foreign soil—though the communications of innocent Americans can and sometimes do get caught up in the dragnet. Justified or not, all things FISA have a negative connotation in some corners of Capitol Hill right now.
Deadline: Dec. 31
Status: Progressives and right-wing conservatives—including leaders of key House committees that would traditionally be charged with shepherding a reauthorization through Congress—will oppose Sec. 702 reauthorization without major changes to the law. A small bipartisan working group has come together in the House to plot a path to reauthorization, and the Biden Administration has focused on the role the program plays in fending off security threats from China and Russia. Those are positive signs, but overcoming the concerns of skeptics in each party is proving difficult.
Forecast: 50/50, at best. The question is whether the changes required for passage are so draconian that the program is watered down past the point of effectiveness.
Reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration
Why it Matters: Congressional reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration comes at a time when record numbers of passengers are returning to the sky—and after a series of close calls at U.S. airports and several FAA system outages that caused major delays.
Deadline: Sept. 30
Status: Senators Cantwell, Duckworth, Cruz, and Moran introduced a bipartisan reauthorization bill on June 12 that would authorize $107 billion in spending to fund key safety programs, modernize the FAA, deploy new air traffic management technologies, and set new federal policy on a number of issues related to the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Forecast: Everyone wants to be safe when they fly, and there is a strong chance of a bipartisan deal here. But watch out for a bitter dispute between senators—and the airlines—about a possible change in the law to allow additional flights from Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) beyond the existing 1,250-mile perimeter. The DCA is the go-to airport for members and staff, and the lobbying effort on that issue alone is intense.
It doesn’t count as major legislation but… EP’s daylight savings update: No change, sorry. Maybe a push before the end of summer?