The Bare Minimum: The Bills Congress Must Pass in 2017
During every election cycle, both parties present to voters ambitious legislative platforms aimed at spurring economic growth, providing critical services to families, boosting America’s national security, or raising America’s standing on the world stage. Once in office, however, elected officials often find implementing the policies they campaigned on to be more difficult than they let on during the campaign. Or, as former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev once said, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.”
The 2016 election cycle saw the winning Republican Party make quite a few legislative commitments that they have thus far not been able to enact into law, including the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, enactment of comprehensive tax reform, and passage of a large infrastructure bill, among other items. In practice, none of the 43 pieces of legislation that both the House and Senate have passed since January have delivered on the most high-profile policies GOP candidates campaigned on during the election. And, with only three legislative weeks remaining between today and Congress’ annual month-long August recess, the prospects for major legislative breakthroughs appear to be slim.
But aspirational policies are just that – aspirational. Presuming Congress is only able to enact those bills that it must approve to avert expiring authorizations, government shutdowns, or debt crises, it turns out that there are only a handful of bills that Congress actually must absolutely pass in 2017.
President Trump’s 100th day in office was marked by the expiration of a short-term government funding bill. Had that bill expired without Congressional action, all non-essential federal government operations would have been shut down. The White House and both chambers of Congress reached agreement on a second short-term funding that provides the federal government with appropriations through September 30th. Unless the House and Senate pass – and President Trump signs – legislation into law by 11:59pm on September 30, the federal government will shut down.
The Debt Limit
The United States hit the statutory debt limit – the amount of debt the Department of Treasury is legally permitted to issue to fund government operations -- in March. The Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” to avoid default since then, and estimates that its ability to continue tap-dancing around financial catastrophe will last only until some point in October. The White House had been pushing the House and Senate to raise the debt limit prior to leaving Washington for August, but it is appearing increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to do so within such a short timeframe. Accordingly, unless Congress sends an increase in the debt limit to the White House fairly shortly after it returns from its summer break, the United States will default on its debt for the first time in American history.
The Federal Aviation Administration, tasked with oversight and safety of America’s aircraft, airways, and air personnel, is operating under a four-year authorization that was approved in February of 2012 that has been extended for an additional year. The current FAA authorization expires at the end of the current fiscal year at midnight on October 1st. The committees in both the House and the Senate with jurisdiction over the FAA have already approved their respective bills to their full chambers for their consideration.
Children’s Health Insurance Program
The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a Clinton-era program enacted into law that provides health insurance to approximately 8.9 million low-income children through joint state-federal partnerships across the country. Budget and spending debates aside (as a healthcare program, CHIP would likely be impacted by any broader health reform bills passed into law), CHIP’s authorization will expire at the end of the fiscal year barring Congressional action. Note that reauthorizing CHIP – or any federal program – is distinct from determining its funding levels.
Congress must pass a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) annually. The NDAA establishes the overall budget for America’s national defense and authorizes specific programs for the Department of Defense. The current authorization will expire at the end of the fiscal year. In the House, the Armed Services Committee has approved its NDAA and sent it to the full chamber; the Senate bill has not yet advanced past the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In practice, Congress and the administration are likely to successfully enact laws for long-term reauthorizations on some of these items while turning to stopgap, short-term measures for others. But, despite the rhetoric promising an active Capitol this year, these are the only bills that Congress actually must pass to maintain existing government operations.