The first session of the 118th Congress is in the books.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have adjourned until the new year. Last week, U.S. Senate leaders opted to extend that chamber’s legislative session into this week in an attempt to corral enough votes to advance a fiscal year (FY) 2023 supplemental spending package that includes money for Ukraine’s efforts to fight Russia and for Israel. Amidst insistence by Republicans that any such package include border security and immigration provisions, the Senate waved the white flag last night and announced that it, too, is done for the year.
The holiday respite will be short. Members of Congress have a lot of work to do — and a reputation to uphold. According to AXIOS, the current Congress is on track to be one of the most unproductive Congresses in recent history. (“Unproductive” is not a great reputation to have heading into reelection.) The House and Senate have sent just a few dozen bills to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature, well behind pace for lawmakers going back to the 101st Congress (1989-1991). Since then, House and Senate lawmakers have, on average, finalized about 300 pieces of legislation each two-year term of Congress.
There will be plenty of opportunities to improve that number next year. When they come back in January, federal lawmakers have a number of must-pass items on their early 2024 to do list. This work, of course, will compete with lawmakers’ desire to hit the campaign trail before next year’s congressional and presidential elections.
Let’s look at what we can expect in the early legislative days of 2024.
Money Matters Will Dominate
Funding for Ukraine and Israel, along with the border security and immigration provisions that the GOP is pushing, will be on the immediate agenda first thing in January, if senators and members of Congress can reach agreement at all.
House lawmakers have approved an FY 2023 supplemental, but it only provides aid to Israel for its fight against Hamas. The legislation contains nothing for Ukraine, and it also does not address the border security and immigration matters Republicans have said they want in exchange for supporting additional aid to Ukraine.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) discussed how difficult it will be for the Republican-held House and the Senate, controlled by Democrats, to find a compromise on an FY 2023 supplemental spending bill. “[A]t this moment, we think that if we get the right deal in the Senate, that can gel in the House,” Sen. Cardin told reporters last week, including those from NY1 News. “The balance in the House is that you have to have policy that can keep Democrats supporting the package at a high enough number with the border security issues in there, as well as getting the Republican leadership to believe it’s adequate enough.”
In addition to wrapping up FY 2023 matters, lawmakers will, of course, also have to think about FY 2024. After all, the federal government already is three months into that current fiscal year.
As readers may recall, in November lawmakers approved a two-track continuing resolution that kept the U.S. government open and funded at FY 2023 levels. One of those agreements expires on Jan. 19, 2024. That CR covers four of the 12 annual spending bills: Agriculture, Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. The second bill expires just two weeks later, on Feb. 2, 2024. That deadline affects the other eight bills: Commerce-Justice-Science; Defense; Financial Services and General Government; Homeland Security; Interior and the Environment; Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services; the Legislative Branch, and State and Foreign Operations bills.
As Punchbowl reported earlier this week, negotiations on the FY 2024 spending bills, which will keep the government open after the current funding bills lapse, have not gotten very far. Indeed, “the Big Four party leaders and the White House have yet to decide on a topline [spending numbers] for the 12 annual spending bills,” the inside the Beltway news source said. In other words, leaders can’t agree even on how much in general they want to spend.
Lawmakers do not want to rely on continuing resolutions for too long. As the Coalition for a Responsible Budget explained, that is because, under the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) approved earlier this year, Congress enacted a penalty for itself for relying too much on these short-term fixes. Specifically, if Congress does not approve full-year spending bills in January, the FRA mandates that automatic cuts to reduce both defense and nondefense funding go into effect. These cuts would reduce discretionary government spending by one percent across the board. While Congress has just a few weeks to avoid these cuts, practically, they would actually take effect at the beginning of May. Congress could reverse them if full-year spending bills are enacted by May 1.
Punchbowl concluded, “It seems improbable, to put it mildly, that the two chambers can come to agreement on all four of these bills by Jan. 19.”
It is hard to disagree with that statement, particularly since government spending isn’t the only matter that will be on Congress’ plate early next year.
Reauthorizations, Tax Matters Also May Be On The Table
The end of the year also normally is prime time for lawmakers to consider legislation to extend expiring tax provisions. Members of the 118th Congress have not turned to that issue yet, which means Congress could focus on the tax code when lawmakers return in January.
As The Hill reported early this month, Republicans’ priorities for this legislation are focused on the business side of the tax ledger. Specifically, GOP lawmakers “want to see deductions extended for research and development costs, fixed capital investments such as machinery and equipment, as well as interest expense.” Meanwhile, Democrats want to resurrect the expanded child tax credit that already has expired.
Analysts at Grant Thornton ultimately think there is little chance of a deal. “[P]ushing into 2024 creates complications,” they wrote last month. “Lawmakers had originally hoped to provide retroactive relief going all the way back to the 2022 tax year, which begins to look less and less practical after 2023 ends. Several lawmakers are openly questioning how the tax provisions could have any incentive effect when applied retroactively.”
In addition to taxes and spending, lawmakers will have to decide whether to extend authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, which expires in March. That issue, however, is relatively uncontroversial; lawmakers should be able to agree on a standalone bill. (If not, rethink traveling by airplane!)
According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, other deadlines include:
Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Cuts. These reductions were scheduled begin at the start of FY 2024 and continue through FY 2027, but lawmakers delayed them as part of the second FY 2024 continuing resolution. If Congress does not act before Jan. 19, the cuts will start to take effect.
National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Reauthorization. Lawmakers approved a short-term extension this fall that expires on Feb. 2.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Reauthorization. As with NFIP, lawmakers approved a short-term extension this fall that expires on Feb. 2.
Farm Bill Expiration. The most recent farm bill, which includes funding for crop insurance, nutrition programs, rural development, and agricultural research and conservation programs, expired at the end of FY 2023, but this fall Congress approved a short-term extension. That reprieve expires on Sept. 30, 2024.
Lawmakers Have No Time To Waste
For at least two reasons, all of these matters will need to be resolved in an efficient manner.
First, lawmakers are set to have the first week of January off. The Senate is not scheduled to be back in session until Jan. 8. House lawmakers will not return until Jan. 9, leaving them just 10 days before the deadline for the first CR hits. If lawmakers do not act before then, discretionary spending programs related to Agriculture, Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development will cease operations, creating a partial government shutdown.
Second, Election 2024 is already in full swing and about to become even more in focus. Not only is House and Senate primary season right around the corner, voting to elect each party’s respective presidential candidate will begin in less than a month. The Iowa caucus is set for Jan. 15 and the New Hampshire primary is scheduled for Jan. 23.
What does recent history tell us about congressional productivity in an election year?
That we cannot expect a lot of legislating in the new year. According to AXIOS, in 2020, the last presidential election year, “Congress enacted 28 pieces of legislation that were introduced this year … far fewer than in any other year since it started tracking the data in 1990.” More bills were introduced in 2020, but fewer made it to the finish line. In 2012 and 2016, about 100 pieces of legislation were enacted into law.
Not a great omen given how much is on Congress’ to-do list.