A Big To-Do List For Congress

Congress has returned to Washington after a monthlong vacation, and they’ve got their work cut out for them in September. Deadlines at the end of the month loom, and the consequences of inaction are very real, from a default on the United States’ debt to a government shutdown. Which means Congress is going to have one of those rare months where they have to actually get some stuff done. But the best guess of how it will all play out is that Congress will engage in a whole lot of kicking the cans down the road rather than fundamentally solving any big problems.

That may be too cynical, since a few things will more than likely be achieved this month. Disaster relief funding, for example, will likely pass in short order. But Congress faces so many large and contentious issues that it’s almost guaranteed that on the big items ― the federal budget, for instance ― all they’ll manage to agree to is giving themselves more time to bicker. And that’s before even considering the large items which <em>don’t</em> have a built-in deadline at the end of the month ― like tax reform.

So here is a rundown of all the things Congress will be busy doing (or not doing, or punting altogether) during September, as well as my best guess as to what the most likely outcome will be.

Hurricane Disaster Relief

I listed this one first, because it’s got the best chance of passing, really. Today, the House is supposed to vote on an initial Hurricane Harvey relief bill. The Senate will soon follow suit in some fashion or another. This will be a small down-payment towards relief funding, as everyone expects the totals to run into the tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars in the end. Depending on how the Senate acts on the debt ceiling (see next item), this could be delayed enough for another bill to become necessary ― Hurricane Irma relief funding. If Florida or the East Coast get hit hard, then the relief for the two hurricanes might have to be joined in a single piece of legislation.

Most likely outcome ― Some sort of initial hurricane relief bill will pass and be signed into law before the end of the month. The major relief bills (supplementing this initial down-payment) will take months, though, because more money will be at stake and the sense of urgency will lessen over time. 

Raising the debt ceiling

The White House has already weighed in on this one, in detail. Initially they had called for a standalone, clean debt ceiling hike, but now they have seen the wisdom of attaching this bill to the hurricane relief bill. This makes it a lot easier for Republicans to vote for, the thinking goes. The main opponents of both the debt ceiling hike and tying the bill to the disaster relief effort are the hardliner Tea Party faction within the Republican Party. They want to use the debt ceiling to bargain for budget-cutting. They’re consistent in this stance; it’s what they’ve always believed. But while Republican leaders occasionally are content to use such brinksmanship with the budget itself (leading to government shutdowns), the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling are a lot greater and a lot more dangerous. So Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will likely work with Democrats and mainstream Republicans to attach the two bills together and get the resulting legislation onto Trump’s desk by the end of the month. The question, though, is how big a hike they’ll approve.

Most likely outcome ― Debt ceiling hike will be successfully attached to the hurricane relief bills, and pass both houses. Tea Partiers will vote against it, but there will be enough Democratic votes to put it over the top. However, Republicans may push for a very short-term hike, carrying the federal government only until December (or possibly next spring), when they’ll have to have the fight all over again. It’d be better for Republicans if they pushed the next debt ceiling hike all the way past the midterm elections, but they may not take this easy way out. 

Passing a 2018 federal budget

This wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Republicans took over Congress, swearing up and down they would pass a budget the old-fashioned way, as they were supposed to. They’d spend months hashing out all of the dozen appropriations bills in committees, and then by now these bills would all be ready for floor votes, to show America that a Republican Congress was capable of passing a budget on time. Virtually none of that has come to pass, though. Instead, Congress wasted all of its time and energy on the disastrous failure of “repeal and replace Obamacare,” and the individual budget bills just didn’t get done. So now they are in the same position they used to deride Democrats for being in ― having to pass either an “omnibus” bill rolling the whole budget together, or having to pass a “continuing resolution” that just puts the budget on autopilot. If Congress does not act, the government will shut down on the first of October.

Most likely outcome ― A continuing resolution will be hobbled together and pass, at (or just after) the last minute. There will be plenty of grandstanding by Tea Partiers leading up to this, which will make it plain to all that the Republican Party can’t agree among itself enough to pass a real budget ― at least, not without Democratic help. But getting Democratic votes is going to mean jettisoning all the contentious Republican agenda items they want to pass. This will lead to a fairly “clean” continuing resolution, with no funds for Trump’s border wall. The only real question is how far down the road they’ll kick this can, but the smart bet is “sometime in December,” at this point. When we’ll have the whole debate over again, just in time for the holidays.

Reauthorizing federal programs

These are fairly minor when compared to the rest of the budget, but there are several federal programs which must be reauthorized before month’s end. This includes the Federal Aviation Administration, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the National Flood Insurance Program. All of these have their own political divides associated with them (for example, the House has already indicated it wants to privatize the F.A.A.). There are also other programs that could get added to this list, such as changing the funding of the Obamacare insurance subsidies so that Congress directs the money rather than the White House, as well as other minor Obamacare fixes. The problem with all these issues is that there simply isn’t going to be enough time or attention available to have contentious fights over such minor programs (taken as a fraction of the entire federal budget).

Most likely outcome ― Reauthorization will happen for the F.A.A., CHIP, and the N.F.I.P. with no major changes to any of the programs. The Obamacare fixes, however, may not make this list, since they have a different level of political contentiousness. All of these fixes will most likely get rolled into the final budget continuing resolution bill.

Tax reform

This brings us to the two agenda items that don’t have a deadline at the end of the month, and so are going to be optional (at best). The first is Trump’s big push to reform the tax system. Trump is currently selling this idea hard (he’s giving a speech on it as I type this), which is really the first time he’s used his bully pulpit to push for major legislation (he certainly didn’t do any of this during the fight over repeal-and-replace). Now, “fundamental revenue-neutral tax reform” has (surprise, surprise) already morphed into “let’s just cut a bunch of taxes on rich people,” so a complete redesign of the system is probably not going to happen. The problem with this is that it will blow an enormous hole in the deficit over the next decade, but that’s never stopped Republicans from voting for a tax cut previously, so it likely won’t this time either. But it’s doubtful that tax reform (or just tax cuts) will be debated any time soon, since Congress has so much else to do, all with hard deadlines attached.

Most likely outcome ― Won’t even be debated in September. Since the budget (and possibly the debt ceiling) will be pushed back to December, this means there will be little time or energy to debate tax cuts for the rest of the year. A bill may make it out of committee and even be voted on by one house or the other, but no final bill will exist by the end of the year. However, this may be first on the agenda when Congress returns in 2018, so long-term prospects look better than seeing it pass this year, especially given the big push from Trump on the issue.

Saving DACA

The final agenda item was added yesterday by the Trump administration. The “dreamers” covered by DACA now have a six-month ticking clock hanging over their heads. If Congress doesn’t act within that time period, DACA could disappear.

Most likely outcome ― Again, this won’t even be formally debated in September. There is too much else to do, and with deadlines looming at the end of the month, a six-month deadline will have to take a back seat. Knowing Congress, the safe money would have to be on “doing nothing until the DACA cutoff deadline looms, and then trying to fix it all at the last minute.” So perhaps by spring, if at all. But certainly not in the next few weeks.

Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant