Back to School Exclusive: Congress Returns from Summer Recess

Monday, September 9th, 2019

by Tara Smith

As children head back to school – complete with new backpacks and shiny new sneakers (do the kids even still call them that?) – Congress, too, is headed back to the grind.  After five weeks of recess filled with Codel’s abroad, town halls back home, and maybe a family vacation here and there, Congress reconvened in Washington, DC on September 9.

They will have to hit the ground running in order to meet one of the most pressing issues – funding the government past the September 30 fiscal deadline.  As you may recall, the House has already passed 10 of the 12 FY 2020 appropriations bills, with the Legislative Branch and Homeland Security bills outstanding.  The Senate, on the other hand, chose not to work on their appropriations bills until after a budget deal was reached and topline numbers could be provided to the various Appropriations Subcommittees.  Since a budget deal wasn’t signed until August 2 and recess began the same day, that means the Senate has not yet passed a single appropriations bill.  It also means that Senate Appropriations staffers didn’t get much of a “recess” and have spent the last five weeks quickly drafting and negotiating their bills.

The path forward will be an attempt by the Senate to move at lightning speed – not something the Senate is typically known for.  In the meantime, the House appropriators have signaled their lack of faith in the speed of the Senate by starting the drafting of a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded while the Senate passes their bills and rectifies differences with the House bills.  Current expectation is that any CR will buy Congress another 30 to 60 days to package together an appropriations package to take us through the rest of the fiscal year.

But just because the appropriations process is likely to take up most of the oxygen in the halls of Congress, doesn’t mean it’s the only issue legislators are facing this fall.  There are a multitude of other pressing issues – some of them with very real deadlines.

First, of course, is the gun debate.  August was a violent month, with multiple mass shootings across the United States.  The House Judiciary Committee even went so far as to call its Members back from recess a week early to take a series of votes on gun violence prevention bills, only to be delayed by Hurricane Dorian. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that he will only take a vote on a gun control bill when he is clear what the President will and will not accept in such a package.

Then, of course, there is the constantly churning discussion on trade, which America’s farmers (and their bankers) are watching with keen interest.  While most of the action on trade resides with the Administration, Congress will have a very real decision point to make on USMCA this Congress.  Most believe that a vote will occur yet this year, but some staunch trade critics like Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have said they don’t expect action until next year.

The Administration is also working hard to hash out the details of an “agreement in principle” with Japan on trade.  As we’ve seen many times in the last two years on trade matters, the devil is often in the details, so most in DC are holding the heavy applause for when the deal is finalized.  This deal will not require Congressional approval, so once a final agreement is reached, the deal will not face the same fate as USMCA of languishing in Congress.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees also have a number of smaller reauthorizations (at least compared to the farm bill) on their plates this Congress. Some of that work may take place this year as Presidential election politics encourage legislators to move sooner rather than later on key items.

  • The Grain Standards Act is expected to be relatively non-controversial, and the Senate has already held its first hearing on the subject.  Most of the Act is permanent law, but the portions that do require reauthorization expire at the end of September 2020.
  • The Commodity Exchange Act, which authorizes activities at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is also on the docket.  Most of the Act is permanent law, but again, there are small authorizations for appropriations that have long-since expired and would ideally be reauthorized.
  • Lastly, the Child Nutrition Act (CNA) is overdue for reauthorization, with expiration having occurred back in 2015. As with the Grain Standards Act and the Commodity Exchange Act, most of the law is permanent and programs have continued to operate without a reauthorization.  That said, there are a number of interests that would like to see changes to the Act and are pushing for reauthorization.  Jurisdiction over this bill is split between the Senate Ag Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee.

Of course, outside of the world of agriculture, there are a number of other reauthorizations due, including higher education and the Violence Against Women Act.  There are also a number of other programs that expire on September 30, such as flood insurance, Export-Import Bank authorization and the Higher Education Act.

In short, lace up those new sneakers and sharpen your pencils because there is plenty of work to be done, not a lot of time to do it, and Presidential politics casting a shadow on all of it.  What remains to be seen is how much can be accomplished and how much will be punted down the road to a mystical time when it will be “easier” to tackle the nation’s business?