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Stephen Boyd: The Washington Brief, February 5, 2024

Congress Kicks Off Busy February with a Mix of Old and New Business.  

February marks the start of the busy season on Capitol Hill, a period of heightened activity in the halls of Congress that runs through April. 

Most prominent, the annual budget and spending cycle starts churning in the coming weeks—a process that will ultimately allocate more than $1.6 trillion in discretionary spending. Also, the armed services committees will begin early consideration of the next National Defense Authorization Act. Combined, these pillars of the legislative year draw thousands of stakeholders to Washington to lobby for or against new policies and funding.

This February, however, Members and staff will need to walk and chew gum at the same time as they also grapple with unfinished business from last year and contemplate the U.S.’s ongoing response to evolving global security challenges. 

Here are the big issues to watch to keep it all straight: 



Despite Fiscal Year 2024 being more than a third complete, Congress has yet to pass the annual appropriations bills to set spending levels for October 1, 2023 through September 30, 2024. 

It’s unsurprising that Congress failed to approve each of the 12 individual spending bills on time, but even seasoned Hill observers raise an eyebrow regarding how little progress was apparently made prior to the October deadline.

To fill the gap, Congress passed a series of Continuing Resolutions (CR), the latest coming even after House Speaker Mike Johnson declared that there would be no further CRs under his watch. Arbitrary lines in the sand usually don’t age well in politics and when later faced with owning a government shutdown or passing another CR, Johnson retreated to the latter. 

Stop-gap CRs temporarily extend current funding levels into the new year, but they create headaches for government and the businesses that support it. Agency heads can’t adjust spending to meet evolving needs, and contractors are often stuck in limbo waiting for funds to become available to pay for the new goods and services that the government says it wants but can’t yet buy. 

Part of the latest CR expires on March 1 and the remainder sunsets on March 8. Senior appropriators just a week ago settled on the topline spending levels for FY2024—a key step that should have been accomplished months ago. While completion of the FY2024 bills could technically still happen before the March deadlines, there is no history of past performance to suggest that it will. And the calendar is tight: the House is only in session 12 days between now and the first deadline. Passage of yet another CR remains on the table. 



Even while that old work lingers, Members and staff are already starting the FY2025 process. The general view on the Hill is that the old business will not impede the schedule for the new. 

The process formally begins with the submission of the President’s budget proposal on the First Monday of February—today. In practice, that milestone is often missed and it certainly will be this year. Nonetheless, Members are moving ahead with internal office deadlines for proposals to change programmatic funding levels or, in some cases, include Congressionally Directed Spending—better known as “earmarks”. Requests come from a wide range of businesses, universities, issue-based advocacy organizations, think tanks, and state and local governments.

Starting in 2011, Congress began observing a moratorium on earmarks, and for a period it appeared the practice was headed to extinction. But earmarks are slowly returning based on a two-prong argument. First, earmarks don’t increase overall spending—they simply allocate a share of money that would otherwise be spent. Second, elected Members of Congress know the needs and priorities of their district or state better than unelected bureaucrats in Washington, and therefore should have greater influence in the process.   

Rules are now in place to limit the number, type, and use of earmarked funds. To consider a request, Members usually require the submission of office-specific paperwork and a “pitch” meeting—hence all those folks coming to Washington this spring. Staff do the lion’s share of the work here, and it’s a mistake to underestimate the influence they have over which proposals ultimately make it to the boss’s desk. 

Members’ deadlines will fall between late February and Mid-March, at which point offices will rank proposals for presentation to the appropriations committees. That’s where the final decisions are made. House Members are currently limited to 15 earmark requests per office; Senators have no such limitation, but as a practical matter will cull their lists before final submission.  



The NDAA sets policies and programs at the Department of Defense and authorizes defense spending. It’s a unique legislative process on Capitol Hill that in recent years spans more than 10 months from start to finish. 

Look for the armed services committees to kick off the process with a robust round of hearings with the nation’s top military brass. In the Senate, that starts this week with testimony on global security challenges and strategy. Other hearings will focus on recruitment, the various combatant commands, space and cyber issues, personnel issues and programs, the defense industrial base, and nuclear deterrence. 

Members of the armed services committees are open to considering proposals for including provisions in the NDAA in a process that runs similar to, but distinct from, the appropriations process. Drafting of the legislation will continue through the Spring with an eye toward committee votes in May or June. At the end of the day, the bill will represent more than $880 billion in authorized defense spending.   



On October 20, 2023, the Biden Administration formally requested that Congress provide $105 billion in supplemental security assistance for Ukraine and Israel. Since then, a running negotiation has taken place regarding how to pair that funding with other provisions to boost security at the U.S. southwestern border. 

Late yesterday, a bipartisan group of Senators, led by conservative James Lankford from Oklahoma, finally introduced a carefully drafted package that would significantly overhaul U.S. immigration law for the better. Notably, the bill would provide significant new resources for border security while updating the asylum laws that are a true driver of a crisis that brought 300,000 people across the border in December alone.  

Nonetheless, a number of Republicans have already rejected the entrée. Some have legitimate policy gripes. Others clearly are wary of providing Biden a shared “win” during a presidential election year. 

The Senate could vote as early as this week, but the measure appears to be “DOA” in the House for now. Expect House Republicans to bring up a stand-alone Israeli aid bill soon. 



March 8th is also the deadline for Congress to provide final approval for a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The mid-air blowout of a side panel of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max aircraft last month has congressional investigators asking whether the FAA is appropriately inspecting production lines. That, plus a troubling series of near-miss incidents at airports across the U.S., will certainly be major factors in the rewrite of the bill. The current law was set to expire last year, but Congress extended it to buy more time.  



In a rare spurt of bipartisanship, the House last week passed a $78 billion tax bill. At its core, it’s an old school compromise to expand the eligibility pool and benefits provided to low-income families by the Child Tax Credit (sought by Democrats) and restore a favorable immediate tax deduction for research and development expenses incurred by businesses (sought by Republicans). In the House, the legislation passed 357-70. The Senate will likely consider the bill later this Spring.  



It’s been said that Presidents get too much credit for a good economy and too much blame for a bad one. Biden’s struggle now is that the opposite of that old adage seems to be playing out. There are objective signs that the U.S. economy has not only avoided a recession, but is starting to roar. 353,000 jobs were added in January, nearly doubling expectations, and the unemployment rate is low at 3.7%. Year-over-year, wages have jumped 4.5%. The federal reserve is widely expected to decrease interest rates in 2024. The S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average each hit record highs this week, but voters either don’t feel it or don’t credit the current administration. A new NBC News Poll conducted last week found that “Trump holds a 22-point advantage over Biden on the question of which candidate would do a better job handling the economy, with 55% picking Trump and 33% choosing Biden.” Efforts by Biden and his Congressional allies to change that narrative will be a big part of the upcoming presidential election. 


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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. Contact Stephen at [email protected] or via X at @SEBOYD79 or via LinkedIn



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