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.
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.