Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.
With Shutdown Threat Looming, Congress Faces Difficult “To-Do” List this Fall
The House of Representatives returns to legislative work tomorrow following the traditional August recess—46 days since its last vote. The Senate returned to action last Tuesday. Together, the chambers face a serious time crunch to make progress on a daunting “to-do” list of legislation.
The big deadlines:
September 30, 2023 (only 11 scheduled voting days remain)
- All 12 Annual Appropriations bills or, more realistically, a stop-gap Continuing Resolution
- Reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration
- Reauthorization of the 2018 Farm Bill
- Reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act (PAHPA)
December 31, 2023 (39 scheduled House voting days remain)
- The FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act
- Reauthorization of FISA Sec. 702 (foreign surveillance program)
And there’s other legislation in the mix, too: a railway safety bill; the cannabis banking bill; legislation to address insulin prices; and a controversial emergency funding request from the Biden Administration to provide $24 billion to Ukraine, $16 billion to FEMA, and $4 billion to address migrant issues at the border.
Progress—or Lack Thereof—on Spending Bills will Define September
Most pressing, Congress faces a significant backlog of work on the 12 spending bills necessary to keep the government operating past September 30th. As of now, the House has approved just one; the Senate has passed none. (At the committee level, the House committee has approved 10 of 12 bills—mostly on party line votes. The Senate committee has approved all 12—mostly on bipartisan votes.)
While there’s nothing new about Congress waiting until the last minute, this September is marked by a challenging set of political dynamics that make it difficult to get even a stop-gap Continuing Resolution across the finish line. In fact, some on Capitol Hill are pessimistic that any of the appropriations bills can be passed later this year. Let’s break down exactly why—but, first, why it matters.
Beyond funding run-of-the-mill government operations and salaries for most federal employees, the annual appropriations bills allow Congress to allocate money to address emerging issues and new priorities. Individual Members can shape these bills by requesting increases to specific programs beyond that requested in the President’s budget. More funding for a particular program may mean more opportunities for federal contractors and universities in their home districts and states to compete for government work. Meanwhile, the spending bills also fund grant programs important to local and state leaders seek looking to advance community priorities like water and sewer infrastructure and economic development initiatives. Further, some Members request earmarks to direct funding to a specific entity. In short, a lot of people have skin in the game.
It’s considered a win when extra dollars are inserted into the base text of appropriations bills, but the new funding only becomes available if the bills actually become law. And, for now, lawmakers face a number of challenges to make that happen—
- The schedule: As noted, Congress is way behind and the clock is ticking.
- Despite an earlier agreement, the House and Senate are drafting their respective bills with different overall spending levels. It’s like spouses arguing over how to allocate their budget without first agreeing on how much to spend in the first place. In this case, the difference is reportedly about $150 billion.
- With only four votes to spare, House Republican leaders have no choice but to consider right wing demands for even deeper cuts, or for inclusion of “culture war” provisions. Each step in that direction makes final passage and reconciliation with the Senate that much more difficult.
- The President’s supplemental request for additional Ukraine funding complicates matters. Some conservatives have soured on spending taxpayer money on a faraway war. On the other hand, as Senator Graham (R-SC) puts it, with just three percent of the annual defense budget, half the Russian army has been destroyed. The Senate will probably add the Ukraine money, but House leaders may be forced to block it.
- Other unrelated issues are in play. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) announced on August 31st that she won’t support a Continuing Resolution (CR) until the House begins impeachment proceedings on President Biden. If others follow her, passing even a short-term CR could be difficult.
Could Speaker McCarthy cobble together a coalition of mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats to pass these bills? Sure—but doing so raises the risk of a right-wing challenge to his own Speakership. Recall that to win support during the Speaker election in January, McCarthy conceded to demands to make it easier to challenge his position. As McCarthy tries to thread the needle on appropriations, he could find himself in the undesirable position of having to choose between a shutdown and his own Speakership.
Conservative Colorado Representative Ken Buck sums up the brewing storm in the House: “On the one hand, we’ve got to pass a continuing resolution. We also have the impeachment issue. And we also have members of the House, led by my good friend, Chip Roy, who are concerned about policy issues. They want riders in the appropriations bills, amendments in the appropriations bills that guarantee some type of security on our Southern border. So you take those things put together, and Kevin McCarthy, the speaker, has made promises on each of those issues to different groups. And now it is all coming due at the same time.”
Two out of every three respondents in Punchbowl News’s regular “Canvass” survey of experienced government relations professionals in Washington believe a shutdown is on the horizon. And most of those respondents know that almost every government shutdown has turned out to be a political loser for the party responsible.
What’s next: As early as this week, the Senate will finally take up its first spending bills: Military Construction/Veterans Affairs; Transportation, Housing and Urban Development; and Agriculture. Expect Senate debate to go smoothly.
More telling, the House will start debate on the defense appropriations bill this week. (Two other spending bills—homeland security and agriculture—are likely next in the queue, though the agriculture bill has been “on deck” for months awaiting resolution of internal Republican disagreements.) In the House, progress—or lack thereof—on defense spending will be seen as a bellwether for the rest of the month.
But as one senior House staffer told me last week, “I’ll be surprised if [the defense bill] gets through. And, if it does, I’ll be shocked if the Senate cares.”
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.