Back From Recess: Congressional Challenges, 2023

Soon, the clock will start ticking.

In early September, after a roughly six-week recess, the U.S. Congress will return to Washington, D.C., to vote on a dozen spending bills that will determine the ways in which the government operates and spends taxpayer money. And, as many of you know, a lot is at stake. But three significant issues, in particular, loom over the last days of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30th.   

What are they? The Defense Reauthorization and Farm bills and, if other spending bills end up being political footballs, the possible shutdown of the U.S. government.

The last time we had a shutdown was in late 2018 when President Trump and House Democrats were battling over a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. Lasting just over a month, it deprived 800,000 federal workers of paychecks and hampered federal services, including food safety inspections and the operations of the IRS and national parks and museums.

Shutdowns, in other words, are not optimal. But this year, preventing one won’t be easy. Below, we share why, first with a look at the history of what some believe is an overly long Congressional break.

The Recess: A Brief History

It may sound like a waste of time, but there are a few good reasons for the recess the U.S. Congress takes from late July through early September. Prior to the 20th century, when politics was a part-time job for Congressmen, reserving time to run their businesses made perfect sense. But as the gig’s responsibilities piled up, the members of the House and Senate found themselves with very little time off. In 1963, a record-setting year, the U.S. Senate convened in January and didn’t adjourn till December.

Congress, at that point, consisted of many younger members who’d had enough. They advocated for a work-life balance, including time spent with family and constituents back home. So Congress enacted the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, requiring a recess in August.

Fifty-plus years later, with even more on Congress’s plate and a 24/7 news cycle, the length of the recess is often questioned, in part because it leaves the House and Senate relatively little time to wrap up each session’s business. And when Congress adjourned in late July, they’d only jointly passed one of 12 appropriations bills, each funding a different part of the federal government.

The Senate returns on Sept. 5 and the House on Sept. 12, which, collectively, gives them just under three weeks to resolve any differences before the end of the fiscal year. So let’s see what we’re up against.

Defense Reauthorization

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), established in 1961, is an annual piece of legislation that sets guidelines for the U.S. Department of Defense and covers military-related programs operated by other federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and the FBI. Its passage is usually unaffected by bi-partisan politics, but this year, just before their August break, the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate passed very different versions of the NDAA, setting the stage for a potentially volatile reconciliation process in the coming month, during which committees from both chambers will have to iron out the bills’ disparities.

First, here are a few items both the House and Senate see eye-to-eye on:

  •  A 5.2% pay raise for military service members 
  • Allowing the U.S. Treasury Department to use sanctions against any person or organization involved in the international fentanyl trade
  • Facilitating better access to mental health care for sailors (following a recent spike of suicides in the U.S. Navy)

But the House version, which includes amendments pushed by some of the chamber’s more conservative members, included a few deemed unpalatable by their Senate counterparts:

  • Not allowing the Pentagon to cover travel expenses for out-of-state abortions
  • Eliminating medical procedures for openly transgender service members
  • Doing away with the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion offices

Otherwise, both versions of the bill, funding-wise, come close to the figure recommended by President Biden—$874 billion for the House, $886 billion for the Senate.

The rub is that the two chambers will now have to negotiate and devise a final version of the bill, which will test the resolve of certain Congresspeople whose political priorities may serve as impediments.

The Farm Bill

What’s known as the Farm Bill, a multi-year law governing various federal agricultural and food programs, is also susceptible to intra-Congressional disputes, only neither chamber got around to voting on its renewal pre-recess. So when they return, the House and Senate will have to sprint to achieve its passage before the fiscal year ends, with many expected disagreements on the horizon.

In the House, Democrats and GOP moderates aren’t happy with a push by conservatives to bar mail delivery of the abortion pill mifepristone, while the House Freedom Caucus wants stiffer work requirements on nutrition programs and deeper spending cuts across the board.

But a number of issues are considered contentious. As part of the negotiations leading to the debt-ceiling agreement reached a couple of months ago, for example, Republicans are looking for ways to ensure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, includes work requirements for beneficiaries. State agencies have already begun to increase the number of people whose food-aid benefits will be severely limited unless they can document that they’ve either been working part-time or receiving work training.

There have also been discussions about repurposing nearly $20 billion provided for Agriculture Department conservation programs to address climate issues, programs favored by many farmers, but only if federal funding can help cover upfront costs.

Also at issue is a proposed cut in funding for WIC, the federal voucher program that helps pregnant women and young mothers afford food. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warned it would remove up to 750,000 beneficiaries from WIC while reducing benefits for another 4.6 million nationwide.   

While other issues hang in the balance, the overall cost of the Farm Bill is projected at more than $1 trillion, a huge price tag considering that one item House conservatives, in particular, are insisting upon is an overall pull-back in government spending. In fact, that’s at the heart of the shutdown threat.

 To Shut Down or Not to Shut Down?

Back in late May, when the debt ceiling deal was negotiated by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, it specified that most federal government funding should remain flat for the next two years. Some House Republicans, however, are in favor of going further, by spending in fiscal year 2024 what was spent in 2022—amounting, in essence, to $115 billion in cuts.

That’s the backdrop for any and all funding votes when Congress returns from recess. To reiterate—lawmakers will be trying to approve 12 appropriation bills in total. In the past, some or all spending bills have been rolled into single “omnibus” packages. But earlier this year, when McCarthy was vying to win support for his nomination as speaker, he promised that the House would handle each separately.

The backup plan is to pass a “continuing resolution” (CR) allowing the government to continue operating at current levels, even after the Sept. 30 deadline, until all the bills are passed.

But agreement on that is not assured. Spending hawks have threatened to vote against temporary measures, and with recent inflation and other indicators hinting at a potentially unstable economy, senior Republicans are pushing for more cuts.

Because so little has been voted on, and so many issues remain unresolved, it’s difficult to predict what might happen in September and, if a CR is passed, this fall.


The legislative process, especially at the federal level, has always been a complicated, often frustrating one. As to whether Congress’s summer recess is too long, strong arguments on both sides have been made. Perhaps more important is what Congress accomplishes before the recess begins. And this year, it can be argued, the two chambers came up a bit short.

Beyond the issues discussed above, Congress has no shortage of legislation to tackle after its members return next month. CiviClick advises our clients to follow the status of the bills closely and be prepared to spend money on paid media to support a digital advocacy campaign at scale. 

Many organizations are limited in impact by small membership pools and an even smaller number of participants in digital advocacy efforts. We believe that reaching beyond your base of supporters, to find new advocates is critical to achieving success in terms of driving constituent engagement and showing lawmakers that their voters care about specific issues.

Reasons to Engage in Digital Advocacy

If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us (and it taught us many things), it’s that digital advocacy is a necessity when it comes to promoting a cause and/or seeking change. At the height of the pandemic, when we weren’t able to do anything in person, we did everything online—networking, advocating, fundraising, political campaigning, and selling products and services.

As a result, all of us, not just members of the generations weaned on digital tools, got used to using them. And the upgrades to technology were constant.

Today, there’s no going back. And there shouldn’t be. While digital advocacy will never completely replace face-to-face efforts, it serves as a lightning-quick, scalable, and powerful addition to traditional advocacy. For these reasons, we’d like to share what you should know about digital advocacy—if, indeed, you want to ramp up your own advocacy efforts, whether you’re a company, association, or nonprofit.

What is Digital Advocacy?

Digital advocacy is the use of technology to mobilize support for a specific cause or campaign. Digital advocates utilize a wide variety of tools, including, but not limited to, emails, text messages, online petitions, social media, websites, and virtual-event platforms.

Some organizations subsist solely on digital advocacy, sometimes by covering issues that appeal to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of advocates worldwide. But in most cases, digital advocacy is a complement to traditional advocacy methods, enabling users of digital tools to amplify their dedication to a cause.

For example, the Virginia Nurses Association, which, at the height of COVID, leveraged its website to lobby their governor to establish safety protocols for both patients and healthcare workers, has a page dedicated to online advocacy. Among its offerings are ways to take action, receive alerts, learn about policies, and reach out to legislators.

The point is, digital tools shouldn’t be used willy-nilly, or simply because they’re “cool.” As with traditional advocacy, each tool serves a specific purpose and should contribute positively to an organization’s overall efforts.

What You’ll Need

So, what “tools” are we talking about? Big Picture-wise, they should include: a database to maintain your list of advocates; either a staff member or a team capable of sending out emails and text messages; a website enabling advocates to take action; and an analytics suite to track progress and optimize performance. We’ll get into more detail about that last one below.

Meantime, as with any traditional advocacy campaign, including those for nonprofits, you should take a few basic steps when setting up a digital advocacy campaign. They include:

  • Identify your audience, meaning your fellow advocates. Keeping their interests, skills, and expertise in mind, who would best serve as supporters of a specific cause or campaign? 
  • Know exactly what it is you want to say about an issue or cause in emails, texts, and on social media. Also, think about the imagery you’d like to use. Words alone don’t do the job; you need to capture people’s attention with visuals.   
  • Use social media platforms to help engage supporters effectively. For instance, Facebook, Instagram, and X (formerly known as Twitter) can be great tools for connecting with potential allies on a personal level.
  • Identify calls to action most suited to your cause. They could include recruiting advocates, reaching out to legislators, organizing a rally, or getting out the vote.  
  • At some point during the campaign, and definitely after it’s finished, evaluate your performance. What worked and didn’t work? How can you improve for the next campaign?

This is where analytics come in handy. Choosing the right advocacy software is essential to an impactful program. Many software programs, including our own CiviClick, are designed to help manage supporter relationships and keep track of which advocates can best contribute to specific efforts.

What You Should Do

While digital advocacy should be tailored to fit your organization’s ultimate goal or goals, there are several strategies common to just about every successful digitally-supported campaign. First, keep these things in mind:

  • Establish realistic goals. Don’t shoot for the moon. Formulate concrete, measurable goals, whether around fundraising, mobilizing supporters or moving legislation forward.
  • Create appropriate content. Once you’ve identified your target audience, develop content that speaks to those folks and provides them with reasons to care about and join your efforts.

When it comes to content, you also want a coherent strategy, one that focuses on appropriate social media channels and contains a timeline with plans for what to post and when. It is then very important to send relatable messages, educate your audience, and continually re-engage them so that they don’t forget about your cause.   

If possible, you should also identify and engage grasstops advocates, individuals who are established leaders, politicians or celebrities, or all three. They have high-level influence, sometimes with policymakers and politicians. And because they’re so well-connected, they can use digital tools to boost support. 

Finally, make getting involved easy. This can include creating message templates, pairing supporters with their representatives, and even telling them when to act. The most successful digital advocates complement these online actions with offline marches, demonstrations, and vigils to push for change. And they mobilize fellow advocates rapidly, offline and online.

The Payoff

Digital apps, social media and mobile browsing have altered the way people connect. Many digital practices make running an advocacy campaign more convenient, while also empowering advocacy groups to make an even bigger impact. The tools they use allow organizations to reach more supporters, advocate more quickly and, with the aid of advocacy software, collect key data.

Digital advocacy is also changing the ways in which association professionals, public affairs experts, and lobbyists perform their roles. It’s an efficient, effective, and key component to any strong government relations program, affording increased accessibility. 

And the results often have long-term effects. Those using digital advocacy have helped change legislation, further their own organization’s goals, and experience growth in membership during campaigns.


Bolstered by our need for virtual connection during the pandemic, digital advocacy is here to stay. While the adoption of some digital tools takes practice, many are now much easier to use than they were just a few years ago. And some, including advocacy software, help organizations adapt quickly to changing circumstances and improve their advocacy strategies in both the short and long terms.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: People remain at the core of every advocacy effort. The digital tools organizations employ are only as good as those using them. Experience, expertise, and personal connections are still instrumental in ensuring the success of advocacy campaigns. Digital tools help to streamline the process, expand an advocacy constituency, and keep an ongoing record of what works and what doesn’t.