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The Sausage Factory

What’s In Store for Congress This Fall?

Election-year politics tends to hijack the legislative calendar. Now that we’re past Labor Day, everyone’s second-favorite parlor game – the first is analyzing competitive and sleeper races – is trying to figure out what Congress might accomplish before November. The cover story in the Sept. 4 edition of CQ Magazine (subscription only) headlined “Fall Legislative Preview: Curtain Rises for Dramatic Finish” looks at this in-depth.

Congressional Institute President Mark Strand spoke with reporter Kate Ackley about how campaigns impact legislation. From the article:

Lawmakers likely will push much of the fall agenda, including a wrap-up of the annual appropriations process, into a post-election, lame-duck session — or even into 2019. That prediction holds despite some unusual bipartisan cooperation, especially in the Senate where the chamber has moved along three-quarters of the annual spending bills, a record for this point in recent years.

The problem remains, though, that neither the House nor Senate has yet to send a final version of any of the 2019 spending bills to President Donald Trump. And volatile skirmishes are on the immediate horizon, including over the president’s demand for funding of a border wall — complicating the process of keeping the government open for business beyond the end of fiscal 2018 on Sept. 30.

This fall, in short, will be a doozy.

“We’re going to have shutdown politics again, the month before the elections, and it’s everyone rolling the dice to see how it plays politically,” says Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute and a former Republican aide on Capitol Hill. “The polarization and partisanship has gotten to a point where I think even the members are tired of it. It’s poisoning the whole atmosphere. For the sake of our country, I hope they get sick of it sooner rather than later.”

Democrat Senators’ overly dramatic posturing during the confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court and their allies’ demonstrative protests are setting the scene for a combative fall. Still, the U.S. Senate has been showing signs of “uncommon collegiality” regarding annual spending bills. The progress Senators have made could stave off a government shutdown. Ackley writes in the article that the Senate has passed 9 of 12 appropriations bills and the Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said that work “had set out ‘a pathway to avoid an omnibus or any kind of drama associated with the end of the year.’”

Of course, what happens in the House regarding those spending bill remains to be seen. Ackley quotes Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, on potential drama there. House Republican leaders are also looking to bring up a second round of tax cuts, which will add fuel to political drama for Democrats who insist on calling the tax cuts passed earlier this year “crumbs” despite the cuts’ growing popularity. From the article:

“The big question will be: Can the House and Senate come to a compromise on any of these spending bills?” Reynolds says. The odds are still high, she adds, that at least some part of federal funding after Oct. 1 will require the passage of a stopgap continuing resolution, which funds the government at fiscal 2018 levels until new spending bills are enacted. The fight over funding for the president’s southern border wall could be a substantial roadblock to an easy transition into fiscal 2019.

Of course, nothing makes vulnerable Members of Congress happier on the campaign trail like being able to talk about legislative accomplishments. For example, there has been a bipartisan approach on combating the nation’s growing opioid problem. Politics cuts both ways, though. From the article:

Members of Congress, on the one hand, want to produce real legislation — on the spending bills and on policy to combat the opioid epidemic — to show voters they can work together. At the same time, they are looking to rile up their parties’ bases in an attempt to motivate their voters to head to the polls in droves in a nonpresidential election year.

The result will be “more bumper-sticker bills being brought up,” says Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Legislative wrangling in the weeks before an election is always interesting. This year is proving to be no different.

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