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What’s Left: Congress’ 2023 “Must Pass” Bills

Congress has a full slate of bills it must pass before the end of the year.

If you are thinking summer has gone by way too quickly, there are probably dozens (if not hundreds) of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who would agree. Next week marks the Congress’ last week in Washington before its annual August recess. Legislative business is scheduled to conclude on July 28 for both chambers. The U.S. Senate will be back in session on Tuesday, September 5, but the U.S. House will not reconvene until a week later, September 12.

Given that lawmakers’ must-do to do list for the rest of 2023 is quite lengthy, they are probably wishing summer would never end.

Let’s take a look at the bills the House and Senate must pass before the clock runs out on 2023.

Fiscal Year 2024 Spending Bills

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains, there are three categories of federal government spending: net interest on the federal debt, mandatory spending, and discretionary spending. Spending for the first two categories are on autopilot — those bills must get paid no matter what Congress does, or does not, do. These two buckets comprise about 70 percent of what the federal government spends each year.

Congress is in charge of how to allocate the other 30 percent of annual spending, which covers everything from education and housing programs to border security.

These priorities are funded through 12 annual appropriations bills that must be signed into law by the president by the end of the current fiscal year (September 30) for the next fiscal year. If any appropriations bill is not completed by that deadline, the agency and programs that are to be funded by it cease to operate.

It has been nearly three decades since Congress has passed all of these bills by September 30. This year probably will not be any different. In fact, not one of these 12 bills has yet passed either the House or Senate. (Each chamber of Congress passes its own versions of these spending bills first. Then a group of lawmakers works to hammer out the differences between the two versions.)

Does the fact that Congress is so far behind mean these programs and agencies are likely to shut down after September 30?

Not necessarily.

Lawmakers can approve a short-term continuing resolution (CR) in September that funds these federal programs at current levels for a certain amount of time. But if Congress does not approve a CR, those programs and departments will halt operations.

In addition to the September 30 marker, lawmakers are working against another appropriations-related deadline. The debt ceiling agreement that members of Congress approved earlier this year would cut all discretionary spending, including funding for the military and for veterans, by one percent if all of the fiscal year 2024 appropriations bills are not signed into law by December 31, 2023. In other words: Congress cannot rely on short-term CRs to fund the government for more than a few months. They must get the appropriations bills done or discretionary spending will be automatically and indiscriminately cut.

With end-of-the-year funding deadlines approaching, Congress often has resorted to cobbling these spending bills together in one large “omnibus” appropriations bill. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has pledged not to resort to an omnibus this year, however. If he sticks with that promise, it makes the job of meeting the September 30 deadline, and perhaps even the December 31 deadline, next to impossible.

Floods, Farms, And Trains … Oh My

Congress faces three additional major September 30 deadlines. This date is when legislation authorizing operations for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) expire, and it is when the current Farm Bill sunsets.

The NFIP provides insurance to homeowners and businesses in flood-prone areas. If Congress does not act before September 30, the NFIP will not be able to provide new flood insurance contacts and it will have its borrowing authority reduced significantly. Currently, the NFIP is able to borrow up to $30.425 billion from the U.S. Treasury. Without reauthorization, the NFIP only will be able to borrow $1 billion. As the Congressional Research Service explained, “If the funds available to pay claims were to be depleted, claims would have to wait until sufficient premiums were received to pay them ...” Families affected by flooding would not be able to repair or rebuild homes, nor would business owners.

The consequences could also be dire if federal lawmakers fail to reauthorize the FAA and the Farm Bill.

According to the American Action Forum (AAF), when Congress allowed FAA authorization to expire for two weeks in 2011, it led “to the stoppage of work on more than $10 billion in national airspace and support projects.” Additionally, “200 FAA-funded construction projects were halted, and $2.5 billion in grants to new airport projects were withheld, which the Associated General Contractors of America estimated to have affected more than 70,000 construction jobs.”

A partial FAA shutdown also could make a dent in economic growth, the AAF said, and it would increase congestion at the nation’s airports by causing flight delays. (Yes, even more delays than what many of us have already experienced this summer.)

As the Congressional Research Service has explained, the Farm Bill is an omnibus bill that governs an array of agricultural and nutrition programs, including support for major commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans and nutrition assistance for low-income households through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

All of these programs would expire if Congress does not agree to an updated Farm Bill.

Expiration does not mean the programs would halt, but funding for them would be severely curtailed. Here is how the American Farm Bureau Federation has explained the situation: “If the Farm Bill were to expire without a new bill in place … all of the programs would return to the 1949 bill, meaning reverting to support price programs for the limited number of commodities covered by the 73-year-old law.”

Federal lawmakers have three choices for each of these pieces of legislation: they can pass long-term reauthorizations, or they can reauthorize them for a shorter period while they hammer out their differences on what the future should look for each program.

Or, of course, they can do nothing and let them expire — an outcome that clearly would create havoc and heartache for their constituents.

Two Not-Quite Must Pass Bills

As if their to-do list was not already long enough, federal lawmakers also are looking to tackle the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the end of the year.

As the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services has explained, the NDAA authorizes annual funding levels and “provides authorities for the U.S. military and other critical defense priorities, ensuring our troops have the training, equipment, and resources they need to carry out their missions.”

The NDAA actually is not a must-pass bill, but for 62 years, and regardless of which party has controlled the House, Senate, and White House, Congress has not gone a single year without approving this piece of legislation, and the President has not gone a single year without signing it into law. Failure to approve the legislation on a bipartisan basis could send a signal to allies and enemies alike.

There also are some practical consequences if Congress does not act on the NDAA. According to the Military Officers of America, “If Congress fails to pass the necessary authorizations and appropriations, then the federal agencies overseeing the eight uniformed services will lack the authorizations or funding needed for the annual military pay raise, along with essential improvements to health care and other quality of life programs and benefits necessary for an all-volunteer force.”

House lawmakers have approved their version of the NDAA, but because of several controversial amendments only four Democrats supported the House bill. (By contrast, last year’s NDAA passed the House 329-101.) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has made it clear his Democratic majority will not consider the House version of the bill and President Joe Biden would veto it anyway.

There are a lot of differences to hammer out before December 31.

While there are no major tax laws that expire this year, House Republicans have been hoping to consider a multi-billion dollar tax package this fall. Among others things, this collection of bills would enhance the research and development (R&D) tax credit for businesses, expand the standard deduction for individuals and families, and repeal some clean energy tax credits.

But Republicans are running into opposition from some of their own colleagues on this front. As Politico explained yesterday, “A small band of Republicans from New York, New Jersey and California is effectively blocking the House GOP’s tax plan from reaching the floor” unless GOP leaders agree to get rid of limits on how much state and local tax filers can deduct. This cap was put into place by Republicans’ 2017 tax reform bill and is a perpetual thorn in the side of lawmakers who hail from higher-tax states. GOP lawmakers from lower-tax states are unlikely to agree to this demand, however, making it difficult for the House to get this bill to the finish line this year.

Americans Want Congress To Get To Work

While Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided on how to proceed on many of these matters, their constituents agree on something: Congress needs to get to work.

According to Pew Research Center polling from June, the two parties’ inability to work together ranks among U.S. voters’ top concerns. Pew noted concerns about the lack of bipartisanship “is one of the few [problems] on which there is no partisan divide.”

With a long end-of-year to do list, lawmakers might want to tackle this problem before they leave town for the summer.

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