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The Coal Left in Congress' Stocking


The Congressional Christmas tree on the west plaza of a Capitol that has seen significantly more legislative production of late.

The holiday season is upon us and – though it sounds odd – despite an impeachment vote today in the U.S. House of Representatives, it has been a relatively productive one in Washington, legislatively speaking.


Last week, the White House and House Democrats arrived at a long-sought deal to make changes to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the trade pact that will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Trump administration also inked “phase one” of a limited trade agreement with China that requires no action from Congress. And—fingers crossed—it appears President Donald Trump will sign a spending bill by midnight on Friday when government funding expires, that not only provides higher funding levels for the federal government through September 30, 2020 (and avoids a government shutdown) but also extends programs like the National Flood Insurance Program, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program, and the Export-Import Bank are authorized to operate. The end-of-year funding bill also repeals several health care taxes that were part of the Affordable Care Act (or, Obamacare, as most people know it) and extends some of the more popular tax credits and deductions that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum widely enjoy. Ho, ho, ho!


But, though it’s become commonplace for Washington to use must-pass pieces of legislation, like a year-end spending bill, to clear out their “to do” list, there are several items that will remain in lawmakers’ stockings after the holiday and into the new year. Lawmakers will have plenty on their plates when they return to Washington on January 7, 2020.

First up: the Senate impeachment trial, and determining the rules that will govern those proceedings. As the BBC explained yesterday, before a trial can begin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will have “to determine the guidelines for evidence, witnesses, duration and arguments.”


That feat will not be a small one.


The two already have gone head-to-head about whether White House officials, including Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, will be compelled to testify. In a letter leaked to some reporters, Sen. Schumer asked Sen. McConnell to compel some of the president’s top advisers to come forward. Not surprisingly, as Axios reported, Sen. McConnell “rejected the notion that it is the Senate's obligation to call new witnesses.” On the Senate floor this week, the majority leader said, “The House chose this road. It is their duty to investigate. It’s their duty to meet the very high bar for undoing a national election. As Speaker Pelosi herself once said, it is the House’s obligation to, quote, ‘build an ironclad case to act.’”

According to CNN, other impeachment-related issues Sens. McConnell and Schumer will have to find agreement on include:


  • Which committee will take testimony and issue orders on the Senate’s behalf;

  • Whether normal Senate procedure will govern the special impeachment committee;

  • What time of day the trial will convene; and

  • Who will deliver opening and closing statements.


Once it starts, the Senate impeachment trial is expected to last about two weeks.

The Senate also will need to vote on the ratification of the USMCA. The House is expected to cast that vote tomorrow (December 19), but Majority Leader McConnell said last week that the Senate will not act to approve the trade deal until after it has conducted its impeachment trial. (Though a majority of the Senate is expected to vote for ratification, Sen. McConnell also said the USMCA is “not as good” as he had hoped.)


Also on trade: Senate Republicans, including Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), also have floated the idea of pursuing legislation that would limit President Donald Trump’s (and future presidents’) ability to impose tariffs on imports into the United States. While the idea would not be popular at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it has support from Democrats and the business community. If introduced, this legislation could gain traction, setting up a potential showdown between the Executive and Legislative branches of government.


Lawmakers also will continue to work on data privacy legislation. While a new Morning Consult poll found 79 percent of registered voters, including 83 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans, want Congress to make crafting a bill to better protect consumers’ online data a priority, as we have covered frequently in the past, the two parties are still ideologically – and potentially uncompromisingly – far apart on this issue.


A draft discussion bill expected to be offered by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who is leading House efforts on a bipartisan bill, will renew this debate in advance of the new year. Energy from that draft document could carry over from 2020, but, still, an agreement between Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate will be hard-fought. And the reality that Washington will become increasingly focused on the 2020 elections and less focused on legislative work as next year drags on doesn’t bode well for progress on the data privacy front. In the absence of federal legislation, states will continue to work on this issue on their own.


As the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call explained this week, financial technology-related legislation, including new rules for cryptocurrencies which federal lawmakers had promised to act on this year, might have to wait until 2021 to see action. An exception to that prediction: “[L]ighter legislative lifts, like authorizing studies or establishing regulatory task forces… [will] allow members to say they’ve done something without having to go through the hassle of actually changing regulations or spending money, could find their way on to must-pass legislation like an appropriations bill.”


Lawmakers also could address online content rules in the new year. As Morning Consult explained, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was not able to excise from the USMCA language providing liability protections for companies that host online content, so “lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to keep attacking” this issue in 2020.


Other legislation Congress could contend with next year include bills to address surprise medical bills and the cost of prescription drugs. And, of course, before September 30, 2020, Congress will have to negotiate spending bills for fiscal year 2020—or risk a federal government shutdown just six weeks before the presidential and congressional elections. (Spoiler alert: look for Congress and the White House, where stakeholders largely want to spend as much time as possible next year campaigning outside of the beltway, to pass a simple “continuing resolution” funding the government through the November elections early in autumn.)


And that will be the main takeaway for 2020 in Washington: as interested as lawmakers say they are to find compromise on data privacy or trade legislation, to find ways to reduce the national debt or to improve government programs, that interest is likely to wane the closer we get to Election Day.

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