Congressional Lame-Duck Agenda Continues to Grow

The U.S. Senate will return to Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, followed soon by the U.S. House of Representatives, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It is unclear how long Congress will be in session, despite many issues remaining unresolved. Most importantly, Congress must act on the 2015 fiscal year budget, which is set to expire Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown.

Not surprisingly, U.S. Congressional leaders are divided on which issues should be addressed in the lame-duck session. Naturally, the agenda will depend on the outcomes of the midterm elections and which party ends up controlling the U.S. House of Representative and the U.S. Senate during the 114th Congress. Many members, especially those retiring from Congress, see this period as a key time to pass priority legislation.

In addition to funding the federal government, Congress may face several key issues when members return. These issues include the cases of Ebola being diagnosed in the country, comprehensive tax reform and tax extenders, military authorization to combat ISIS, the Marketplace Fairness Act, border security and immigration reform, reforming the Highway Trust Fund, granting President Obama trade promotion authority, and confirming several executive branch nominations.

Federal Budget—Before adjourning, Congress passed House Joint Resolution 124, a continuing resolution that funds the federal government until Dec. 11. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress likely will pass either a short-term stopgap spending bill or a long-term omnibus spending bill. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has stated her interest in passing an omnibus spending bill. Republican leadership, however, might prefer a short-term spending bill, especially if Republicans gain seats in the Senate, which may put them in a position of strength when the 114th Congress convenes in 2015. In either scenario, lawmakers from both parties would like to avoid a government shutdown.

Ebola and Federal Funding—The recent situation with Ebola in the U.S. has become an issue for policymakers when they return. Last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the situation and the federal government’s interagency coordination and response. Many committee members were critical of the federal government’s response, and others advocated for increased funding for on-the-ground response efforts and to speed up the development and manufacturing of vaccines. The Senate Committee on Appropriations has set a hearing for Nov 6 to discuss the situation.

Tax Reform, Tax Inversions and Tax Extenders—A lot of media coverage has focused on U.S. businesses reincorporating abroad to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Many Republicans and Democrats would like to solve this problem by passing legislation, though their solutions differ. Republicans favor comprehensive tax reform, while Democrats tend to support targeted legislation aimed at specific provisions in the tax law that incentivize tax inversion. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan plans to retire this year and has made tax reform one of his priorities, putting pressure on Congress to act. Camp’s office has released a discussion draft on the topic that details the changes he would support. Despite interest among Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers have not reached consensus on bipartisan legislation. Moreover, a collection of tax breaks known as tax extenders expired in 2014. These include a diverse set a tax breaks that are important for state and local governments, including for research and development, small business startups and renewable energy credits. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon is hopeful to pass the tax extenders legislation before the new Congress meets next year.

Military Authorization against ISIS—Congressional leaders have expressed interest in reauthorizing military action in the Middle East to combat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Reid has expressed interest in reauthorizing the president to use military force in the region. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has suggested that Congress wait until next year before granting more authority, but has said he would consider holding a vote if the president called Congress back to session.

Marketplace Fairness and the Internet Tax Freedom Act—Reid has stressed his support for passing the Marketplace Fairness Act before the 113th Congress adjourns. He points to the recently crafted bipartisan bill, the Marketplace and Internet Tax Freedom Act (S.2609), which combines the Marketplace Fairness Act and the Internet Tax Freedom Act, as a compromise. CSG has long advocated for the Marketplace Fairness Act and its ability to allow state and local governments to enforce sales tax on online retailers. This is a key initiative to help level the playing field between Main Street businesses and the growth of online retailers. Policymakers have been split on the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which would create either a short-term exemption or a permanent moratorium on the taxing of Internet access and providers. The proposed Senate bill would enact the Marketplace Fairness Act, while also enacting a 10 year extension on the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

Border and Immigration Reform—President Obama has expressed his intention to introduce his vision for immigration reform after the midterm elections. Although he has provided very little detail on his plan, many Republicans believe the president should postpone immigration reform until the 114th Congress convenes in 2015. U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told the press, “If the president, in the lame-duck session of Congress, after the elections but right before a new session, tries to do some kind of an unconstitutional work around Congress, he will poison the well for immigration reform.”

Highway Trust Fund—Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California wrote a letter to Camp requesting the House Ways and Means Committee discuss and take a vote on a long-term solution to the Highway Trust Fund. Last July, Congress extended funding for highways through May, 2015, but many Senate Democrats believed this bill only postponed the issue for the next Congress to address. Boxer stated in her letter, “We cannot afford to wait for action until the deadline, which falls at the beginning of the critical summer construction season, or to kick the can down the road any longer.”

Trade Promotion Authority—Obama has requested Congress pass a Trade Promotion Authority bill that allows him to negotiate free trade agreements with foreign trade partners. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus introduced the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014 and Camp introduced a trade promotion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both bills were introduced in January 2014 , but Baucus departed the Senate to become the U.S. Ambassador to China, which delayed Congressional action on trade promotion authority as he was one of the major advocates in the Democratic Party. The new Finance Committee chairman, Ron Wyden of Oregon, said he has “voted for every major market opening agreement,” including for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Wyden said, however, that granting the president trade promotion authority is up to Reid, who vowed not to discuss Trade Promotion Authority until after the elections.

Executive Branch Nominations—The White House has hinted at nominating a replacement for departing Attorney General Eric Holder during the lame-duck session. Senate Democrats and the president would prefer a quick December vote on Holder’s replacement, but Senate Republicans have stated their preference to wait until the new Congress convenes in 2015, especially if Republicans take the Senate. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the press: “Rather than rush a nominee through the Senate in a lame-duck session, I hope the president will now take his time to nominate a qualified individual who can start fresh relationships with Congress so that we can solve the problems facing our country.”

It is near impossible to predict how active the lame-duck session will be, regardless of whether the Republicans take the Senate. Historically, lame-duck sessions have provided an avenue for Congress and the president to pass a slew of laws.