October 10, 2017

Should I Start My Online Christmas Shopping Now?

Marty Paone

Today is October 10, and the public schedules of the House and Senate show 31 work days for the House and 32 for the Senate remaining through the end of the year. If you don’t count Fridays, only one of which they have worked since February, there are also 28 session days remaining until December 8 when the appropriations funding, debt limit suspension and flood insurance extensions expire.

With the recent release of a tax bill outline, the tempo to enact the FY 18 Budget Resolution has increased as the Republican Congress seeks to complete action on a tax bill using the same reconciliation procedure it attempted to use for healthcare. The House passed its Budget Resolution on October 5 by a vote of 219-206 with 18 republicans voting no; the Senate Budget Committee reported its Budget Resolution out on the same day. While the Senate is in recess this week, it is expected to begin, and complete action on, its Budget Resolution during the week of October 16. They will then go to conference with the House to resolve their differences. The House is scheduled to be out of session the week of October 16.

The two Budget Resolutions have their differences – one notable difference is the House cuts entitlement programs by some $200 billion over 10 years while the Senate only reduces them by $1 billion. The Senate Budget Resolution assumes some $5 trillion in cuts over 10 years to get to balance, but it does not instruct any committees to report out such savings except for the Energy Committee’s instruction noted below. The cuts in the Senate’s Budget Resolution are not assumed to take effect until FY 19 and beyond, and it assumes some $1.2 trillion in economic growth as part of its reaching a surplus in 2027. But House conservatives are already signaling a willingness to compromise on these differences in order to arrive at a conference agreement which will instruct the two bodies tax writing committees to report out reconciliation tax bills.

The House Budget Resolution instructs 11 of its committees to report out legislation while the Senate just instructs the Finance Committee and the Energy Committee to report legislation, the latter is expected to report out legislation which will permit energy production in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Senate’s committees reconciliation reporting deadline is November 13, the House deadline was October 6. These dates and other details will be modified in the conference report which they hope to hammer out and adopt during the week of October 23.

That will allow the two chambers to act on their reconciliation tax bills in November and send them to conference with the expectation that the tax bill conference report will be produced and acted on by mid- December. The two chambers will be out during Thanksgiving week beginning November 20.  This is an ambitious schedule, but if the House and Senate Republicans can agree on the details of the tax bill the reconciliation process will make it possible to achieve. The House, with its Rules Committee, determines how much time that chamber will use to pass its Budget Resolution and who, if any, will get to offer amendments. This also applies to the consideration of the reconciliation tax bill and the possible conference reports.

In the Senate the Budget Resolution has a time limit for debate, including the disposition of debatable amendments, of 50 hours, equally divided between the two leaders. At the end of that time amendments may still be offered and voted on without debate, this is the so called vote-a-rama. It can last for several hours averaging 3 votes per hour.  The Reconciliation bill has a time limit of 20 hours, equally divided, and it is also subject to a vote-a-rama. The conference reports for both the Budget Resolution and the Reconciliation bill are not amendable and each is limited to 10 hours for debate.  If the republicans succeed in passing a reconciliation tax bill they may want to use it as a vehicle to extend the debt limit.  If that causes them to lose support for the bill they could instead include a debt limit extension in the appropriations bill that will need to be done by December 8. Or they could possibly go into the spring of next year using the Treasury Department’s ‘extraordinary measures’ to fend off default but that could require them to address the issue and extend the debt limit by itself during the primary season of an election year-not an optimal choice. Attaching it to another must pass item like the tax bill or an Omnibus Appropriations spending bill, as Mary Poppins would say, “helps the medicine go down.”

The optimistic timeline providing for passage of the tax bill in December assumes a level of cooperation between House and Senate Republicans that has yet to be seen in this Congress. Healthcare was a prime example of the difficulty of passing major legislation with only one party. Some feel that the tax effort will be easier than healthcare, but the vested interests will wage an all-out war on the Hill to alter the package. The supporters of retaining the state and local tax deductions have already launched their campaign. Many details of the package have yet to be worked out so, while it is possible from a parliamentary standpoint to complete action this year, it’s just as possible that the effort slides into next year as CBO scores are evaluated, opposition to provisions mount and offsets are ‘dialed’ up or down depending on the need and the political heft of the offset supporters.

In addition to the Budget Reconciliation/tax bill effort Congress faces an Government funding appropriations deadline of December 8; this includes the need to renew the authorization of the badly needed flood insurance program, and the extension of debt limit borrowing authority mentioned earlier.  The Children’s Health Insurance, CHIP, program will need to be addressed before December 31, if not enacted on its own it will need to be folded into another moving vehicle.

Both the House and Senate have passed Defense Authorization bills for FY 18 which are far exceed the Budget Control Act’s FY 18 spending level of $549 billion.  In order to fund such an increase, and not be subject to the BCA’s across the board sequester, Congress will need to pass legislation to turn off, or suspend, the sequester.  That will require 60 votes in the Senate and democrats will demand an increase in domestic discretionary spending if Defense is to receive a plus up.  In addition to the Appropriations bill enactment the Defense Authorization Conference report will need to be enacted before the end of the year, as it has been in each of the last 55 years.

Layered over all of this will be the need to appropriate more disaster relief money for Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands probably before the December 8 deadline.  The House may consider such a bill this week, providing for almost $50 billion more in relief. There will also be an attempt enact, per Senator Schumer and Minority Leader Pelosi’s meeting with the President, legislation that will provide some level of relief for the more than 700,000 young people who are covered by the DACA program. Republicans will demand that some immigration reforms and border security enhancements be included in any DACA relief legislation.

Add in the Senate’s need to act on nominations to fill many vacant administration positions, two now at the Cabinet level, Secretary for Homeland Security and Secretary for Health and Human Services; the majority’s desire to fill lifetime judicial vacancies; other items like Health Care Insurance Reforms and CRA Disapproval Resolutions, etc. and the work load quickly expands to fill up the remaining session days. Any individual items that fail to get addressed may be candidates for inclusion in the December 8 appropriations package, which will probably receive at least one extension to December 15.

The one bright light in all this is that the FAA Authorization was recently extended until March 31, 2018 so that’s one item that Congress will not need to address this fall.


Marty Paone

Martin P. Paone is a Senate Procedure expert and serves as a Senior Advisor at Prime Policy Group. Marty rejoined the firm after a two-year hiatus spent working for President Obama as his Deputy Assistant for Legislative Affairs and Senate Liaison. Marty served on Capitol Hill for 32 years, including 13 years as Democratic Secretary.