Deadlines and Headlines

When it comes to legislative action, there is no time like the deadline. As Congress returns this week, they face a series of decisions that shape the rest of the fiscal and legislative year. Congress has fewer than three weeks of working days in September to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a default on America’s bills. As Hurricane Harvey recovery continues, they also need to address fundamental questions about the government’s role in caring for its most vulnerable citizens. This new set of deadlines comes bundled with the unfinished appropriations work left over from the dog days of summer, the results of which will affect Duke’s future funding priorities.

The House intends to vote on an eight-bill spending package which combines the remaining appropriations bills that did not receive a vote before recess. Media reports indicate Congress may combine emergency aid for Harvey victims with stopgap government funding and the debt-limit increase upon return. Since such a funding package is likely to include much-needed emergency aid, it is unclear if President Trump’s previous threat to veto a funding package that does not include border wall funds will stand.

Meanwhile, Senate appropriators will resume work on Wednesday, September 6, including Labor-HHS-Ed and State-Foreign Operations subcommittee markups. The full appropriations committee will address both bills the following day.

The Senate Appropriations Committee still has not taken up defense spending. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) began a fast-track process to bring a House-passed package of national security spending bills to the floor, but senators did not vote on the legislation before adjourning for recess. That measure is unlikely to garner enough Democratic support to overcome a likely filibuster.

The pending reduction to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief account is part of a massive spending bill the House considers this week when lawmakers return from their August recess. The $876 million cut included in the 1,305-page measure’s homeland security section pays for roughly half the cost of Trump’s down payment on the U.S.-Mexico border wall that the president repeatedly promised Mexico would finance.

GOP leaders are unlikely to cut disaster aid next week as floodwaters still cover Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, and as tens of thousands of Texans seek refuge in shelters. There is only $2.3 billion remaining in the federal disaster coffer.

In that same vein, a federal flood insurance program is the only option for millions of homeowners and expires at the end of next month. The National Flood Insurance Program expires Sept. 30 and must be reauthorized to continue operating past then.

Although not directly tied to Duke initiatives or funding priorities, flood insurance and disaster relief are likely to become bargaining chips in upcoming funding battles as Congress tries to bundle together debt limit increases, disaster funding, and appropriations.

President Trump faces many tough choices on the future of medical treatment in America. The president has threatened to pull funding for a key Obamacare subsidy, but his advisers so far have talked him out of a move that could send the individual insurance markets into a tailspin.

He faces two key deadlines in the next few weeks: whether to keep paying insurers the subsidy and whether to defend the payments in federal court. Meanwhile, insurers in most states filed final 2018 rates on August 21 amid uncertainty about the future of Obamacare subsidies and whether Republican lawmakers would drop their years-long salvo against the health care law and focus on repairing it. As important as the decision to fund insurance programs may be, funding the government will prove more so.

While the House and Senate were on recess for the past month, leaders worked on a plan to avert a government shutdown and a debt default before the fiscal year ends. The September 30 deadline is still weeks away, but Republicans were eager to settle on a strategy before lawmakers return today, September 5, with just 12 workdays before that deadline.

Even if they beat the finish line and prevent a funding lapse, leaders are already resigned to the idea of another short-term extension of current funding levels to buy more time (i.e. a continuing resolution). Without a full-year defense spending bill and a bipartisan agreement to lift defense budget caps, a continuing resolution will be needed to avert a government shutdown. If past is prologue, it could be well into 2018 before federal agencies receive updated funding.

Not all fiscal deadlines are in September. Some are self-imposed.

At the urging of his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Trump has decided to end the Obama-era program DACA (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) that grants work permits to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children. From current media reports and AG Sessions’ press conference, Congress will have 6 months to act on immigration reform before the program is phased out. The need to write immigration legislation adds to Congress’s full docket of upcoming milestones and will compound negotiations this fall.

The crumbs of August leave Congress with major legislative decisions. The government must be funded. The debt ceiling most likely will be raised. Immigration reform is on a tight, self-imposed timeline, and now flood insurance will rule Congress’s already full calendar. The chief driver of inaction is not just different political ideologies, but rather the gap between expectations and reality in a loaded calendar year.