Congress Is Long on Work, Short on Time

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When Congress reconvenes from its seven-week recess after Labor Day, there will be plenty to do, but there won’t be time to really accomplish much.

Election years always cut into the legislative calendar. This year, because of the polarization and dysfunction that courses through Congress, the workload that has been completed prior to the recess was significantly smaller, putting even greater pressure on the five weeks after Labor Day that the House will have for legislative actions.

The most significant hurdle before Congress is funding the government. The federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, leaving Congress just four working weeks, or 17 workdays, to complete the process of passing the 12 appropriations bills that make up the federal budget. In order for this process to be completed, the House must pass seven appropriations and the Senate must pass nine. The likelihood of this happening is virtually zero.

A more likely scenario is the House and Senate will negotiate either an omnibus appropriations bill or a continuing resolution. An omnibus appropriations bill is essentially a negotiated package of a group of the appropriations that make the process of passing bills easier because they are technically passing only one bill that is made up of the remaining appropriations bills. A continuing resolution, or CR, on the other hand, is a simple extension of current funding levels.

For the infrastructure construction industry, a CR would be favorable because it avoids the drastic cuts of the House-passed Interior and Environment Appropriations Act.

Both the House and Senate have also expressed interest in completing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). This legislation authorizes water resources and water navigation infrastructure projects traditionally, but any legislation this year is expected to include significant investment for lead pipe replacement in response to the Flint, Mich., water infrastructure crisis.

WRDA faces challenges because of the differences between the House and Senate versions. The primary difference is the Senate version includes a water trust fund that would pay for water infrastructure projects and be financed by the largest consumers of water — manufacturers.

Another potentially large hurdle for Congress in September is what to do about the Zika virus. In June, the House adopted a measure that provided $1.1 billion for funds to combat the virus, but it appears Senate Democrats will block any action in September.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in June that the House will take up legislation aimed at reforming the criminal justice system in September. The House Judiciary Committee has approved 11 bills aimed at reforming criminal sentencing requirements, society re-entry programs and federal criminal procedures.

Throughout the debate of these four major priorities, expect to hear a great deal about gun control, impeaching the IRS commissioner and Supreme Court nominations.
In June, in the midst of House activity on appropriations bills, House Democrats held a protest on the House floor demanding action on gun control in the wake of mass shootings and police killings.

Just before the recess, a group of the House’s most conservative members, called the House Freedom Caucus, filed a motion that would set up a vote in the House to impeach John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner.

Since March 16, 2016, Merrick Garland has been awaiting a confirmation hearing on his appointment to the Supreme Court to replace Antonin Scalia who died Feb. 13, 2016.
Each or all of these issues have the potential to gum up the workings of both the House and Senate as it is likely the supporters of these actions will attempt to redirect the conversation to build support or attempt to force action.

All the while, both Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will attempt to craft an agenda that allows their members to vote on or pass legislation that will benefit their reelection campaigns. Especially in the Senate, where the Republican majority is very much at stake, you can expect ceremonial votes on issues intended to differentiate between Democratic and Republican agendas.

Some sort of budget action will be completed in September. What else is completed entirely depends on how long the appropriations process takes. Don’t expect much, but expect to hear a great deal of rhetoric as the campaign trail heats up.

Will Brown is NUCA’s director of Government Affairs.

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