What's on Congress's Legislative Agenda?

Few agenda items between now and the midterms qualify as a “must do”—meaning that most won’t get done.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Congress is back from spring break and looking at another six-plus months until the midterms. But in terms of pursuing a serious legislative agenda, the session is more or less over.

As Hill folks well know, any pet project that didn’t get jammed into the $1.3 trillion omnibus funding package that passed last month is unlikely to get far between now and Election Day. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already having night terrors about a big blue wave sweeping the countryside. There’s no way he wants to subject his members to legislative squabbles that could further complicate their electoral fortunes. Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, just announced his retirement, so look for the House to get even more fractious. (Will the conference let Ryan keep the gavel until he leaves or demand leadership elections asap?)

Heck, Congress isn’t even pretending it will adopt a budget resolution this year, so you can guess the odds of it managing to, say, reform the flood-insurance program or the Farm Bill. As for meatier issues like immigration, criminal-justice reform, or infrastructure investment: Look for those to make progress right around the time Nancy Pelosi volunteers to oversee construction of Trump’s border wall.

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.

House Republicans are also gearing up to waste some time on messaging votes—passing legislation they know won’t make it through the Senate but that let them cover their butts on issues near and dear to their base. Exhibit A: The Balanced Budget Amendment that was rolled out, and immediately fizzled, this week. It might strike some observers as odd that, having passed a tax cut-spending combo that will balloon the deficit, Republicans would turn around and champion a plan to make Congress balance the books. Then again, what else can members who’ve been fiercely peddling fiscal discipline do now that their party has turned spendthrift? Since constitutional amendments require two-thirds support to clear the House, the BBA had no chance of going anywhere. Republicans in both chambers were publicly mocking it, including Representative Justin Amash, who cheekily tweeted that it “shouldn’t be called a BBA; it should be called a CYA.” That said, lawmakers desperate to signal to the folks back home that they really do care about deficits can now point and say, “See! I voted for that!”

Speaking of fiscal flip-floppery, there is also talk of Republicans using a “rescission” bill to claw back chunks of the omnibus that they don’t much fancy (i.e., the parts Democrats negotiated). House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, now raring to assume Ryan’s mantle, and President Trump have been noodling over how best to use an obscure provision that allows Congress to selectively rescind recently approved funding. Such a reversal would require only simple majorities in both chambers, meaning Democrats could get steamrolled. But as with all budget matters, when lawmakers start getting specific about where to cut, they risk stepping on toes in both parties. There would be scads of awkward questions about why members were changing course on a package they just pushed through. And Democrats would be unlikely to forgive such a maneuver by September, when the next funding agreement needs to happen. Some Senate Republicans have already voiced distaste for such a move, including Lindsey Graham, who declared Monday that rescissions are “going nowhere.”

There’s also the possibility of a vote aimed at amending the recent tax agreement to lock in the reductions in individual rates. (As passed, the deal lowered corporate rates permanently but set individual cuts to expire in 2025.) This is tricky terrain. Such a change would further inflate the cost of the package—again spotlighting the GOP’s new spendthriftiness—so McConnell may prefer to avoid any debate in the Senate. (The leader’s office declined to chat.) Alternatively, McConnell could decide it’s worth pushing Democrats, especially those on the ballot this year, to make an uncomfortable choice: support Republicans in their tax slashing (making it harder for the blue team to accuse the red team of fiscal irresponsibility) or get slammed for opposing tax relief for hard-working Americans.

Now layer onto all this all the unknown unknowns that tend to pop up in any given week of the Trump Era. Et voila! Lawmakers should have plenty to keep them occupied in between campaign events. As for more ambitious legislating: There’s always the lame-duck session.