The Race to the Finish

The Race to the Finish

September 2023   minute read

By: Jon Taets

Two-thirds of 2023 have already passed, and Congress has contributed its share of drama, despite relatively few bills being signed into law. In fact, as of this writing, only eight bills have passed both congressional chambers and been signed into law by the president, probably the most notable of which was the legislation that narrowly avoided a default on our national debt and was signed by President Biden in early June, just before a possible default. By August of 2019, when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans held the Senate and the presidency, there were 34 bills signed into law. By August 2021, with Democrats in control of all three, 31 bills had been signed. The slow pace of the 118th Congress means there is much yet to be done, yet relatively little time to do it.

It is worth noting that at the time of this writing both chambers were working towards completion of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill providing for our national defense, as well as a five-year Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. Those may be signed by the time of printing, which would add two bills to the above total.

The most pressing items left on the agenda for the 118th Congress are the 12 annual appropriations bills. The current funding for our federal government expires at the end of the fiscal year, which is September 30. Congress must take action on new spending bills or authorize the continuation of current spending by that date to avoid a government shutdown.

The most pressing items left on the agenda for the 118th Congress are the 12 annual appropriations bills.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act, the legislation that avoided debt default, adds a new wrinkle to the appropriations process this year. It mandates that all 12 appropriations bills must be passed to avoid across-the-board cuts to current spending limits.

Often, when Congress is divided and has trouble coming to agreement on spending levels, it resorts to what is called a continuing resolution, or CR. A CR generally continues spending at the previous fiscal year’s levels, with some adjustments. Fiscal hawks in the House inserted a new provision in effect for the next two years that if a CR is in effect on January 1, 2024, then any spending covered by that CR will be cut by 1% across the board. Those cuts can be reversed if Congress passes appropriations for the 2024 fiscal year before April 30, 2024, otherwise they become permanent. This adds a new incentive for Congress to find a way to pass new appropriations bills, even if it is unable to do so by the end of the current fiscal year, rather than revert to a CR.

Getting that done will likely require some more legislative gymnastics by House GOP leadership in order to get something through the House that can also pass the Senate. Thus far, Speaker McCarthy has been able to marshal his resources to get things through the House, but, as noted earlier, he has had limited success doing so in such a way that they can become law. The narrow majority in the House coupled with the spending-restraint demands of factions of the House GOP, not to mention their preference to pass all 12 appropriations bills separately, will make this year’s appropriations process even more challenging. Despite the preference for individual bills, expect to see a few “minibus” packages put together, where multiple bills are fused together into one larger bill. That is as opposed to one large omnibus package that would fund the entire government in one massive bill, which has been the approach more recently.

Appropriations isn’t the only big-ticket item on Congress’s near horizon. The Farm Bill reauthorization is also up with the same September 30 deadline. This is an every-five-year reauthorization of spending on a variety of policies, with the “nutrition title” making up about 80% of the bill’s spending. The nutrition title is the section that helps to manage nutrition assistance programs. Much of the controversy is over the cost and specifics of those programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), such as how the program will work and who qualifies to receive assistance. Conservatives already won one of their fights when work requirements under SNAP were tightened as part of the debt-limit deal earlier this year, but don’t expect them to rest on their laurels over that. Expect policy fights over the total cost of the program, since fiscal conservatives have long targeted it for cuts.

NACS has two priority issues it hopes to see settled as part of the Farm Bill this year.

NACS has two priority issues it hopes to see settled as part of the Farm Bill this year. The 2018 Farm Bill enacted a temporary five-year ban on EBT processing fees, and NACS is calling on Congress to make that ban permanent. If the temporary ban is lifted, SNAP retailers and customers would experience increased costs, and it would lead to a payment-processing system that would discourage retailers from participating in SNAP entirely. NACS is also hoping to see a repeal on the prohibition on SNAP customers being able to purchase hot food items with their benefits. The ban on hot foods dates back to SNAP’s creation over 50 years ago, and Americans’ working, shopping and eating habits have drastically changed since then. Removing the hot foods restriction is a commonsense update that would give low-income Americans flexibility and would help SNAP retailers more easily comply with program requirements. There is bipartisan support for both of those priorities, and NACS is pushing for both issues to be included in the final Farm Bill.

It is likely that Congress will be unable to meet the September 30 deadline for the Farm Bill due to the extent of the work that remains necessary to be completed, so expect to see at least one extension of the current authorization and possibly a series of shorter extensions depending on what Congressional leaders of the respective agriculture committees feel is necessary.

While appropriations and the Farm Bill are likely the highest priority issues for Congress to finish over the final third of 2023, there is much more they will likely try to move. In the House, we will likely continue to see movement on a series of social issues, as the House GOP tries to mollify its base while simultaneously putting vulnerable Democrats in tough spots on votes that they will try and exploit during next year’s campaign. In the Senate, Democrats may try to do some of the same to Republicans, though the procedural rules in that chamber make it more difficult. Senate Democrats will likely try and bring issues like recouping the compensation of CEOs of failed banks and Supreme Court ethics reforms to the floor. In reality though, they are likely to continue their ongoing efforts to confirm as many federal judges as possible while they still have the majority and President Biden remains in office—an approach very similar to what Senate Republicans took the last time they were in the majority.

The next few months are likely to see a flurry of activity, though how much actually becomes law remains an open question. Once the calendar flips to 2024 and we enter an election year, particularly a presidential election year, things are likely to get even more interesting on Capitol Hill.

Jon Taets

Jon Taets

Jon Taets is NACS director of government relations. He can be reached at jtaets@ convenience.org.

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