Legislative Outlook After the August Recess

The halls of Congress are quiet once again as lawmakers return home to their districts for the seven-week summer recess. Although Congress goes on recess every August, the adjournment will be longer this year due to the political conventions. Neither chamber will resume formal activity until after Labor Day when lawmakers return for 19 legislative days before adjourning again in October for the presidential election. They will return to a litany of unfinished items, including the annual appropriations bills and measures to address the Zika virus and the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Early on in the 114th Congress, Republican leaders expressed optimism that their control of both chambers would allow a return to regular order on appropriations bills. However, partisan gridlock has prevented any of the 12 appropriations bills from making it to the president’s desk. With a new fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, appropriators are turning their attention to a continuing resolution to keep the government operating, and there is already in-fighting over how long a stopgap funding bill should last. Some Conservatives have called for a six-month continuing resolution to avoid lame-duck dealmaking associated with an omnibus spending measure.

“I’m not a fan of kicking things into a lame-duck session,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said. “If you held a gun to my head and made me choose the length of the continuing resolution as the last option, I’d say let’s kick this over into the first part of next year.”

Upon their return in September, lawmakers will also try again to come to an agreement on funding to combat the Zika virus. The administration has requested $1.9 billion from Congress to fight the virus. The House included a $1.1 billion Zika funding measure as an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, but the bill has failed to advance in the Senate twice due to heavy Democratic opposition over provisions they consider attacks on women’s health services.

Leaders from both parties have been sharply criticizing one another over the inaction. “In the two weeks since Democrats first blocked the Zika funding agreement, there have been 1,062 new cases in U.S. territories, 487 new travel-associated cases in the continental United States, and now the first Zika-related death in the continental United States,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. “How many more Americans have to get sick before Democrats quit their political posturing and work with us to get this agreement to the president’s desk?”

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the same subcommittee stated, “When it comes to a public health emergency like the Zika virus, women and families deserve action from this Republican controlled-Congress—but instead, all they are getting is partisanship and gridlock.”

Other lawmakers are continuing the fight to secure funds to help Flint, Michigan, residents address the city's lead-contaminated drinking water. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma has been urging Senate leaders to schedule a vote on the committee-passed 2016 Water Resources Development Act. The legislation would set aside $220 million for the city of Flint and authorize more than $4 billion to help remove lead from the water and fix water infrastructure nationwide, in addition to authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to pursue a variety of water resources development projects and environmental restoration initiatives.

Inhofe and a coalition of 28 other Republican senators sent Cornyn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky a letter asking that the bill be brought to the floor for consideration. Although this did not happen before the recess, lawmakers from both parties are optimistic that time will be scheduled for consideration of the bill when they return in the fall.

Often quickly forgotten are the accomplishments Congress has achieved this session, including long-awaited legislation to combat prescription opioid and heroin abuse, K–12 education reform that gives states greater control of accountability and academic standards, and a long-term surface transportation bill that provides stability and assurance for state-planning purposes. With little legislative time remaining this year and the attention of Congress focused on keeping the government operating, lawmakers will be hard-pressed to enact other major legislation.