Congress seeks elusive consensus before summer recess

Barring cancellation of a portion or all of the scheduled summer recess—an event not currently expected despite the requests of several Republican senators and House members, as well as conservative media personalities—the House, when it returns for legislative business on July 11, will be in session for only 13 days before leaving on July 28, not to return till September 5. The Senate returns a day earlier, on July 10, and is scheduled to be in session for 15 days before also leaving for summer recess on July 28 and returning on September 5.

Below is an overview of some of the matters that may receive Congressional consideration before the end of July and our assessment of their current prospects.

Health care reform legislation

Senate GOP leadership decided on June 27 to delay consideration of the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), their proposed legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. After several GOP senators stated their opposition to the BCRA draft, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was short of the votes he needed to bring the bill to the Senate floor. He has now spent his 4th of July holiday on the very challenging task of threading the needle and making changes to the BCRA that can win the votes of 50 Republican Senators to bring such health care legislation to the Senate floor and pass it.

To do so, Leader McConnell must address the concerns of conservative Republican Senators who say that the current version of the BCRA does not repeal and replace enough of the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, Leader McConnell also must be responsive to those moderate Republican Senators who say, among other things, that the cuts to Medicaid under the bill ($772 billion) are far too severe.   In addition, the CBO score that the bill would result in an estimated 22 million additional uninsured persons by 2026 is an attention-grabbing headline that has stoked public opposition to the bill.

Leader McConnell wants to bring a revised repeal-and-replace bill to the floor as soon as possible after the July 4th recess   The Congressional Budget Office is currently reviewing legislative language sent by Leader McConnell and will score the fiscal impact of these potential changes to the BCRA bill. The Senate parliamentarian will also have to consider whether these proposed changes can properly be raised in a reconciliation bill. These factors are likely to push any roll call on a revised BCRA bill to the last half of July, either during the weeks of July 17 or July 24, rather than immediately after the July 4 recess.

It currently seems as if any overture that Leader McConnell makes to either the conservative or more moderate wings of his Conference in an effort to win votes for the bill threatens the willingness of the other wing to support it. The key open question is whether Leader McConnell, an extremely skilled legislative tactician and veteran horse trader, can craft a compromise that will attract enough votes from both conservative and moderate Republican Senators to get to 50 votes.

The passage, or the abandonment, of Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal-and-replace legislation, and when these events occur, is likely to have an enormous impact on the timing, the terms, and the likelihood of success for many key elements of the Republican legislative agenda. If the status of ACA repeal-and-replace legislation is not resolved until the final week in July, it surely will delay consideration of many of the subjects that Congressional Republicans hoped to consider before leaving at the end of July for their summer recess.

FY18 budget resolution

Because adoption of a fiscal year 2018 budget resolution will vitiate the reconciliation process of the FY17 budget resolution under which ACA repeal-and-replace legislation currently is being considered, the House will not adopt an FY18 budget resolution until it is definitively determined whether ACA repeal-and-replace legislation can be enacted through use of the reconciliation process.

House Budget Committee Chair Diane Black (R-TN) has been unable to finalize a budget because conservatives are demanding huge cuts to mandatory programs, such as food stamps. No agreement presently exists on how to spread the pain of the $200 billion in mandatory spending cuts (down from $500 billion in Chairman Black’s initial draft) that are necessary to offset the cost of the additional military spending that Black proposes. Republican moderates with concerns about the budget resolution say passage of such a resolution will make it more difficult to pass tax reform. Even if the House Budget Committee manages to push through a budget resolution at some point in July, it’s unclear whether it will be able to attract enough support from Republican moderates to make it through the House.

The Tuesday Group (moderate Republicans), because of their concern about the impact of entitlement cuts, particularly to Medicaid, on the public, and their belief that these mandatory spending cuts could “imperil tax reform,” has asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to delay consideration of a budget until health care legislation is passed or abandoned so that the members have a clearer idea of what the fiscal picture looks like. They have threatened to oppose the curbs in entitlement spending unless there is a bipartisan deal to increase spending caps. At the other end of the spectrum within the House Republican Conference, Freedom Caucus members say that they will back an FY18 budget resolution only if it cuts mandatory programs, including Medicaid and food stamps. (The Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group each represent enough House Republicans that either group’s opposition to an FY18 budget resolution would be sufficient to bring about its defeat.)

Moderates say that the budget resolution’s proposed $621.5 billion in defense spending (not including war funds) also would violate the law by exceeding the $548 billion cap on defense spending for FY18 under the Deficit Reduction Act.

FY18 appropriations bills

The continuing struggle over ACA repeal-and-replace legislation has delayed consideration of an FY18 budget resolution. The failure to adopt an FY18 budget resolution has left the Appropriations Committees in the dark as to the overall level of resources that will be available for spending in FY18. As a result, the FY18 appropriations bills are being marked up without any section 301 overall spending limit or any section 302(b)s divvying up the overall spending limits among the various appropriations bills.

The foregoing factors have led to a backlog in the appropriations process. With only 25 legislative days remaining in the House before FY17 ends on September 30, the House Appropriations Committee has now marked up about half of the bills and has reported to the House only its version of the FY18 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill. With 27 legislative days remaining in the Senate until the FY17 fiscal year expires on September 30, the Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to mark up and report to the Senate any of the FY18 appropriations bills.

This backlog has led some House Republicans to propose that some or all of the appropriations bills be packaged in a single bill to be taken up by the House before the August recess as a way to accelerate consideration of the FY18 bills. Whether the House Republican leadership elects to move forward with such an omnibus appropriations bill, the delays in the appropriations process and the inactivity to date in the Senate on appropriations bills make it highly likely that a continuing resolution will be required to fund the federal government’s operations after September 30 and avoid a government shutdown.

Debt ceiling increase

Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin wants the debt ceiling raised before the summer recess and a vote on raising the debt limit may be held immediately before the long August recess if health care has been dealt with by the end of the month, though it could slip to September if Treasury offers reassurances to Hill leaders that such a timeline would work. (The Congressional Budget Office says that, currently, extraordinary measures can get Treasury to October before the debt ceiling is reached.)

Health care has to get done first says House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The unanswered question is whether a coalition of Democratic and Republican members can be mobilized to pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase or whether Congressional Republicans will attempt the far more difficult task of tying an increase in the debt ceiling to the adoption of further spending cuts.

Tax reform

Comprehensive tax reform legislation is not expected to be introduced and considered by Congress before the summer recess. The Big Six—Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Speaker Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch—have been meeting to discuss tax reform, with the goal of reaching agreement on a framework to be considered by the House and the Senate this fall.

Meanwhile, Ways and Means will hold tax reform hearings in July, with a hearing on how tax reform will help small businesses grow and create jobs already scheduled for July 13. The Senate Finance Committee, for its part, will begin considering comments it has received as a result of Chairman Hatch’s June 16 request for submissions and recommendations for tax reform (Chairman Hatch’s letter gave a deadline of July 17).

Perhaps the most significant event for tax reform in July will be how the Senate deals with health care reform, as passing or failing to pass health care legislation will directly impact both its likelihood of success and potential scope. The reconciliation process can’t be used for tax reform unless and until there is an FY18 budget resolution and an FY18 budget resolution can’t be addressed until ACA repeal-and-replace legislation is disposed of, one way or the other.

Conflict in Iraq and Syria: Debate on the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF)

On Thursday, June 29, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the FY18 Defense Appropriations Act from Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA). The amendment would repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use Of Military Force (AUMF) 240 days after enactment of the Department of Defense Appropriations bill. As of 2013, the AUMF had been invoked more than 30 times to authorize troop deployments and other military measures, including detentions at Guantanamo Bay and military trials for terrorism suspects.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the AUMF has been used more than 37 times in 14 countries to justify military action. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the AUMF was used to justify the deployment of US forces to Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. President Obama also used it to justify military action against ISIS, a group that did not even exist when the AUMF was adopted in 2001.

While Rep. Lee’s AUMF language is expected to be stripped from the FY18 Defense Appropriations bill at some point before it becomes law, the inclusion of this language in the text of the Defense Appropriations Act, as adopted by the House Appropriations Committee, makes it likely that the House, and possibly the Senate as well, will have a debate on the relevance and propriety of the AUMF language at some point before the Defense Appropriations Act becomes law. GOP military veterans have voiced strong support for a debate on the AUMF.

Flood insurance

Authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program expires at the end of September. A dispute in the Senate Banking Committee over a privatization proposal offered by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is keeping the version of an NFIP reauthorization from moving forward to date in the Banking Committee.

The House version of an NFIP reauthorization is further along. On June 15 and June 21, the House Financial Services Committee approved a package of seven flood insurance bills. While the House has yet to take up these bills, the chamber is expected to vote at some point in July on a five-year reauthorization of the NFIP. That said, several members of the Louisiana delegation say that because of reductions in funding levels and several controversial privatization proposals, this package of bills currently lacks the votes to pass the House. (The National Association of Homebuilders, the National Association of Realtors and many members of Congress are said to oppose the House bill.).

Infrastructure

While many observers hoped and believed that a proposal to upgrade America’s roads, bridges and airports would be an early priority for the Trump administration—as well as one with the potential to attract bipartisan support—it now seems clear that infrastructure sits behind health care, tax reform, a debt ceiling, government funding and even an FAA reauthorization on the administration’s legislative wish list.

On June 29, with the White House still yet to unveil formal legislative text for its massive infrastructure proposal and not expected to do so until the fall, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) observed that congressional work on the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure package would likely slip to next year.

FAA reauthorization

The House and Senate committees of jurisdiction have marked up two separate versions of FAA reauthorization bills, the major difference being air traffic control reform. The Senate bill lacks the ATC reform language and is very similar to the comprehensive bill passed (with a bipartisan majority) in the Senate in the 114th Congress. Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, wants to bring his bill to the floor in mid-July. However with the expectation of a highly contentious dispute over the ATC privatization proposal, the bill’s prospects in the House are uncertain. Meanwhile, consideration of the Senate FAA reauthorization bill may be delayed by the pendency of health care legislation in the Senate.

What’s in store for the debt limit in 2017?

The federal debt limit, also known as the debt ceiling, is the legal limit, set by Congress, on the total amount that the US Treasury can borrow. See 31 U.S.C. 3101(b). As a result of passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-74), the federal debt limit has been suspended since November 2, 2015, and is set to be reinstated on March 16, 2017, at roughly $20.1 trillion, the amount required to cover all borrowing that has occurred to fund government obligations since the debt limit’s last suspension. After March 15, 2017, if lawmakers fail to take action to once again increase or suspend the debt limit, the federal government will, eventually, be unable to meet its existing financial obligations in full and on time.

Because the federal government’s accumulated debt will immediately equal the new debt ceiling, unless the Congress acts by passing legislation for President Trump’s signature, the Treasury will once again have to employ extraordinary measures to ensure that the federal government continues to pay its obligations in full and on time. (According to current estimates, the federal government can continue to meet all of its current obligations through midsummer 2017 through the use of extraordinary measures. However, significant changes in the broader economy or in federal spending or tax policy could materially alter this estimate.)

If the level of federal debt hits the debt ceiling (and so-called extraordinary measures, usually involving a reduction in the amount of intragovernmental debt invested by the Treasury, have been exhausted by the Treasury), the federal government cannot legally borrow additional funds until Congress raises or suspends the debt ceiling, and the federal government would be unable to pay in full the bills for existing financial obligations (i.e., spending that has already been authorized and incurred). Thus, a debt ceiling increase or suspension eventually will become necessary to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt, something the federal government has never done and that could have disastrous consequences for the federal government’s borrowing costs.

Periodically, Congress considers and passes legislation to increase or suspend the debt limit. While any annual budget resolution is required to include appropriate levels of the public debt covered by the resolution, legislation is required to make changes to the statutory limit on the public debt because the budget resolution does not become a law. Moreover, at some point, Treasury’s extraordinary measures will be exhausted; so if the debt limit is not increased or suspended, it will have only cash on hand plus daily revenue collections with which to make payments. (Once the debt limit is increased or suspended, the law requires the unwinding of any extraordinary measures that the Treasury has employed.)

Since the first overall debt ceiling was adopted in 1939, it has been raised more than 100 times, including more than a dozen times since 2000. Many, indeed most, of the decisions by Congress to raise the debt ceiling have not been particularly controversial. However, in recent years, Congressional partisanship and the concerns of many about the size of both the federal budget and the deficit have made the subject of increasing the debt limit a highly controversial one.

Many Congressional Republicans have used the need for a debt ceiling increase as a platform to argue for reduced domestic discretionary spending and lower taxes, while some Congressional Democrats have used the debt ceiling platform to make the case for a reduction in deficit spending and greater fiscal responsibility through higher taxes and less defense spending. Far fewer members of the House and Senate seem willing to make the case for deficit reduction and balanced budgets as a matter of fiscal responsibility and intergenerational fairness. Thus, when the debt ceiling fight finally arrives, in March 2017, it may provide an early indication of whether the public has a greater interest in maintaining the creditworthiness of the federal government than do those the public has elected to represent them.