The swearing-in of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as Speaker of the House in January has marked the return of divided power in Washington and the inevitable clashes that accompany it. Like Speaker Ryan (R-WI) before her, Speaker Pelosi has had to carefully manage a diverse caucus which ranges from progressive members in safe districts, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to Freshman members in more conservative-leaning districts, like Joe Cunningham (D-SC), who will need to vote carefully on behalf of their districts if they hope to return to Congress in two years and do their part to maintain the Democrat majority in the House of Representatives.
The 116th Congress began during the longest government shutdown in US history (35 days), as Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the White House battled over funding for constructing a wall on the nation’s Southern border. The shutdown was followed by the release of the Mueller Report in mid-April, ample discussion of Administration investigations, possible impeachment of the President, and a seemingly unsolvable humanitarian disaster on the Southern border. Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has focused his attention on judicial and Administration confirmations, a focus which is likely to continue through the year. Democrat leaders have nicknamed him the “steward of the legislative graveyard” for his singular focus on confirmations at the expense of legislative issues.
Budget and Appropriations:
In the end of July, before departing for its summer district work period, Congress achieved a major accomplishment by raising the debt ceiling and passing a two-year budget resolution. This bill prevents the government from defaulting and provided Congress with top-level numbers from which the appropriators could work. The President supported and signed the bill into law. Had the parties not reached an agreement, the federal government could have defaulted on its debt, sending the economy into a tail spin and $126 billion in across-the-board budget cuts would have gone into effect in January as per the Budget Control Act of 2011. Sequestration is a blunt knife, the impact of which, neither Democrats nor Republicans favor.
The two-year budget agreement moves the government past the Budget Control Act and provides top-level budget levels for appropriators for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. To date this year, the House “deemed” appropriated levels and has used those levels to pass ten of the twelve appropriations bills. However, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Shelby (R-AL) and Speaker McConnell decided not to move forward on appropriations bills until a broad budget agreement was passed. Now that the agreement is law, it is expected that when Congress returns after Labor Day, the Senate appropriations subcommittees will begin marking up their appropriations bills. Committee leadership in the Senate has indicated that they will focus on funding for defense, labor, transportation, health and human services, and energy and water which would roughly fund 70 percent of the government. This would leave the remaining bills to be negotiated as a package. The Department of Homeland Security will, of course, be one of the more contentious bills to be negotiated.
Importantly, the two-year budget agreement facilitates a smoother road forward for Congress to get through the business of funding the government through the 2020 elections. This was viewed as politically beneficial to both parties.
Major legislation remaining on the Congressional agenda for 2019 remains unclear, particularly given the fact that no fewer than seven Democratic Senators have thrown their hats in the ring for the White House. Senate dynamics are complicated by the fact that Republicans maintain a narrow three-seat majority in the Senate with twenty-two seats to defend in 2020 (including Majority Leader McConnel’s seat) compared to twelve that the Democrats must defend. While the numbers are not as promising as they appear for Democrats to take back the Senate because of the composition of the states in which these races will take place, Majority Leader McConnell must be careful in what legislation he chooses to try to move across the Senate floor and Minority Leader Schumer (D-NY) will be very careful in what bills he encourages his caucus to support.
In the House, Speaker Pelosi has passed a number of bills recently which have broad support from her caucus even though they have little likelihood of being taken up by the Senate. Republicans in the House who are hoping to win back their majority, have seen their hopes dimmed in the last few weeks by the fact that six Republicans have added their names to the list of members not seeking re-election increasing the total to eight. Three of those Republicans are in seats considered vulnerable to being flipped by Democrats, making the possibility of reclaiming the majority in the House a steeper climb.
On a more hopeful note, infrastructure remains an area where there seems to be rare bi-partisan agreement. The last week of July, prior to the August recess, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved by 21-0, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 (S. 2302). This five-year bill would authorize $287 billion for highway programs, an increase of 17 percent. Additionally, the bill would repeal the $7.57 billion rescission in contract authority which will become effective July 1, 2020 under the FAST Act. This should be viewed as a very positive step forward for a surface transportation reauthorization bill. It is step one in a multiphase process, but that step should be viewed as a very important step to get the ball rolling on reauthorization. It should put pressure on the Senate Finance Committee to evaluate mechanisms to fund the bill. And also provides a benchmark for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as they work on drafting a bill which Chairman DeFazio has indicated he is likely to take up late this year or early next year.
At this juncture, major legislation, in addition to infrastructure, that has a possibility of being enacted include:
- USMCA Trade agreement;
- Drug pricing; and
- Possible ACA replacement should court strike down;
It is still unclear whether the mass shootings from earlier this month will ultimately result in gun legislation, however the topic of gun control promises to remain prominent with Congress and the Presidential campaigns leading into 2020.
The Administration continues to move forward in its efforts to decrease the regulatory burden on business and to correct, what it views as regulatory overreaching in the Obama era. Just this week, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) advanced its Hours of Service (HOS) proposal by publishing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register with a 45-day comment period, which seems to indicate that the agency may be trying to expedite this rulemaking. The proposal increases driver flexibility by among other things, expanding the current 100 air-mile “short haul” exemption to 150 miles for some drivers, increasing flexibility in the 30-minute break rule, and extending by two hours duty time for drivers encountering adverse weather. FP2 intends to submit comments in this rulemaking, following up on the comments it filed in the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last Fall.