What does Congress face this fall?
Congress returned from the August break facing the challenge of having to address a long list of critical issues in the dwindling legislative year. These important issues include reaching agreement on the budget and debt ceiling; addressing the expiring highway funding authority; overhauling federal education policy; and discussing cybersecurity legislation.
BUDGET AND DEBT CEILING
Congressional leaders must broker a deal by Sept. 30 to keep the government running into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Many Congressional insiders believe Congress will pass a short-term funding extension that will coincide with the pending debt ceiling deadline, forcing negotiations on both issues to the end of December. Republicans have said they want to keep defense and non-defense spending within sequestration budget caps, while providing more money for defense separately through appropriations for overseas contingency operations that do not count against the budget caps. Democrats, including the president, have maintained that any increase in defense spending should be matched by increases in non-defense appropriations.
The impending deadline presents an opportunity for a handful of members to make statements on contentious issues. The first issue raised could be a call from pro-life conservatives for a rider to defund Planned Parenthood to be included in a short-term funding extension, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has made clear that he is not open to that proposal. In an interview with Kentucky’s WYMT-TV, McConnell stated, “The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood.”
Looking down the road, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently warned that action to raise the $18.1 billion debt ceiling will be required in December. If Congress passes a short-term funding deal, discussions regarding the budget and debt ceiling could come to a head right before the holiday break, meaning yet another last-minute, year-end showdown.
On July 31, Congress passed and President Obama signed a three-month, $8 billion extension of the Highway Trust Fund, the primary federal funding mechanism for the nation’s roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. The extension is set to expire Oct. 29. The leadership in both chambers has expressed the desire to enact a long-term measure that would provide greater consistency and certainty for transportation infrastructure funding. Without a long-term solution, states face the continuing threat of being forced to cancel or postpone important highway projects.
In July, the Senate passed a long-term solution, the $275 billion Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy, or DRIVE Act, however, this legislation, which would expire after six years, would only ensure guaranteed funding for three years.. Senate Democrats, House Republicans and administration officials have proposed funding a long-term bill through corporate tax reform, specifically using revenue raised by taxing foreign profits of American companies. McConnell has opposed this proposal. According to The Hill, McConnell said, “I view it (corporate tax reform) as a totally separate track unrelated to the highway issue.” Negotiations on transportation policy will continue through October.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND REWRITE
Congress is making real progress on the first major rewrite of education law in more than a dozen years. With both chambers now having passed their own bills, lawmakers are turning their attention to what will be a difficult conference negotiation this fall to craft compromise legislation that satisfies both the House and Senate and is acceptable to the president. The legislation would overhaul the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Critics of this legislation contend in Congress that the No Child Left Behind Act usurps local prerogatives, placed unwarranted control of education in the federal government and forced educators to test students too much.
In April, the House of Representatives took steps to address cybersecurity by passing the Protecting Cyber Networks Act, which would give private companies liability protections when sharing cyber threat data with government civilian agencies. If a company is threatened or attacked, this bill would allow it to quickly report the intrusion without fear of a lawsuit so that prompt action can be taken to address the threat.
Despite commitments from Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Reid to move companion legislation—the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act—agreement could not be reached on the legislation before the August adjournment. White House spokesman Eric Schultz endorsed the need for legislation in August.
“Cybersecurity is an important national security issue and the Senate should take up this bill as soon as possible and pass it,” Schultz said in a statement.
The political dynamics between the White House and GOP leaders, who control both chambers of Congress for the first time in eight years, will ultimately determine whether lawmakers can avoid a government shutdown, raise the federal debt ceiling and address the previously mentioned bills. How Congress proceeds this fall will have major implications for states and their priorities.