From the five years I spent working on Capitol Hill, I can tell you that the August recess is always a welcomed change of pace for Members of Congress and their staffs. That’s because the August recess, which generally runs from the first week of August until after Labor Day weekend, is a guaranteed time on the legislative calendar when very little, if anything, is required. Washington empties out as Members of Congress go on sponsored trips internationally, work in their districts or take personal vacations of their own, and their staffs follow suit.
As is true with every year, the lead up to the August recess can be brutal. This year, the House and Senate battled over extending the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) authorization and funding. The August recess, as we saw this year (and every year), serves as a deadline both chambers use as leverage to pressure the other chamber to cave to its demands. This year the Senate voted on a long-term highway package that the House refused to bring up for a vote, so with the August recess quickly approaching, the Senate succumbed and passed the House’s three-month extension through October. This is not unusual, but it’s also not difficult to see how this is not productive or efficient governance.
When Congress returns this month, a host of issues will require attention. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, 2015, and it looks like it will be nearly impossible for Congress to pass the full appropriations package (there are 12 annual appropriations bills that make up the entire budget and fund the entire government that must pass both chambers). This shouldn’t be surprising as Congress hasn’t completed this very basic responsibility for more than 20 years. In lieu of the full appropriations package, Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR), which is simply a fancy way of saying they will extend spending levels for a specific period of time, probably until the end of the calendar year. At the end of the year, Congress will then have the opportunity to pass another CR or what’s called an Omnibus appropriations bill — which is simply rolling the remaining, unpassed appropriations bills into one giant bill that covers the entire year. This assumes Congress is unable or unwilling to pass appropriations bills individually as they are responsible, but with a 20-year track record of not doing that, it seems to be a safe assumption. This year, NUCA members should pay close attention because both the House and Senate’s drafts of the appropriations bills that fund the EPA cut the State Revolving Fund programs that provide water and wastewater project funding which NUCA members bid jobs. This will be NUCA’s legislative focus heading into the fall.
In addition to the appropriations for the government, the Iran sanctions deal, FAA reauthorization, tax extenders/reform, K-12 education reform and the HTF (you didn’t think it would go away, did you?) will be on Congress’ plate. Oh, and don’t let me forget about that pesky thing called the debt ceiling, which will need to be increased in October. The good news is that of these, only the appropriations, debt ceiling, tax extenders and HTF have hard deadlines with real repercussions. It just so happens that three of those deadlines will fall within a month of one another (appropriations, debt ceiling and HTF). The tax extenders package should be completed by the first of the year, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Congress waited until January to pass the extension and made them retroactive.
Put simply, Congress will be busy this fall and much of the work will be controversial. The House and Senate seem divided on each issue and have their own ideas about how to move forward and with what. But don’t let them fool you. They may seem busy now, but with the Presidential election season starting up as early as it has, don’t be surprised if Congress packs up for the campaign trail even earlier than normal next year.
Generally during a Presidential election year, the August recess marks the adjournment date for Congress until the “lame duck” session after the election. But in 2012, Congress was in session in July, but didn’t do anything material. In addition, the closer the election becomes, the more both parties will be positioning for political victories (or sabotaging the other party’s attempts). The time between this August recess and the beginning of 2016 may be the only opportunity for meaningful legislation until 2017. The first Presidential primary season officially kicks off Feb. 1, 2016, with the Iowa Caucus.
Will Brown is NUCA’s Director of Government Affairs.
This year, NUCA members should pay close attention because both the House and Senate’s drafts of the appropriations bills that fund the EPA cut the State Revolving Fund programs that provide water and wastewater project funding which NUCA members bid jobs.