This does not mean lawmakers will be twiddling their thumbs between now and November. Even with the electorate mesmerized by the increasingly lurid Trump Show, someone might notice if Congress stopped work altogether. Fortunately, there are numerous ways aside from legislating for members to pass the rest of this session—some of which are even productive.
Top of the list for the Senate: clearing nominations. This is, no question, a vital task. Team Trump clearly could use more hands to keep the ship of state afloat—and that’s before factoring in the steady stream of administration folks hitting the exits, voluntarily or otherwise. Of course, Democrats remain in no rush to scoot through the president’s picks, judicial or executive. So even as Senate attentions fix more firmly on nominees, expect the process to stay sluggish. (Tick. Tock.)
What of the House? In the rowdy lower chamber, expect more debate, more votes, and more bills being passed—precious few of them designed to survive the Senate. When asked, House members can quickly run through a list of programs, policies, and agencies that require attention, including (but not limited to!): the Farm Bill (which expires in September), the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization (also expiring in September), the National Flood Insurance Program (expires in July), the Water Resources Development Act (biennially funds infrastructure projects), the rollback of Dodd-Frank financial regulations, a Balanced Budget Amendment, and tweaking the new tax package to make its individual rate cuts permanent. And, oh yes, government funding expires in September, at which point Congress needs to pass a continuing resolution, or CR, to avoid a shutdown in the closing weeks of campaign season.
When you press them, of course, plenty of lawmakers acknowledge that, aside from a CR, vanishingly few agenda items qualify as a “must do”—which is lucky seeing as how they won’t get done.
First, the basic housekeeping issues. Keeping the likes of the FAA and the flood-insurance program (NFIP) running is, strictly speaking, necessary. That said, what tends to happen is that Congress takes a stab at reauthorization, only to have negotiations eventually fall apart in one chamber or the other. To avoid having the true extent of their dysfunction revealed, lawmakers wind up passing a short-term extension of the program as is.
This kind of pathetic can-kicking has come to define the NFIP. Increasingly, key FAA programs (which, like the NFIB, got a temporary extension in the omnibus) and the Farm Bill (which houses the food-stamp program) are on this path as well. It took a one-year extension and two Congresses to get the previous Farm Bill finalized, and this year’s prospects are looking ever grimmer.
Congress being Congress, even items that should be on a glide path have gotten bogged down in posturing. Take the rollback of Dodd-Frank. A bill to ease banking regulations passed the Senate last month with bipartisan support—a political event as rare and startling as a Trump press conference. But some House conservatives, most notably the head of the Financial Services Committee, Jeb Hensarling, want to loosen the regulatory reins further and are pressuring leadership not to move on the bill until the Senate agrees to consider further changes. Nervous industry interests (who want to grab what the Senate’s offering before something goes awry) were planning to put the screws to House members over the break, and presumably leadership will eventually push this bill forward. But who knows how much foot-dragging Hensarling will be allowed before then.