The Bare Minimum: What Congress Must Do This Year
If last year ended with a bang — Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement that he would not support the White House’s Build Back Better (BBB) plan — then 2022 and the second session of the 117th Congress most certainly has started with a whimper.
The U.S. Senate is back in session this week, but you would barely know it. A massive (for Washington, D.C.) snowstorm quieted Capitol Hill and, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant, Congress’ chief doctor has recommended as many people work from home as possible. House lawmakers are in recess until next week, and Sen. Manchin has said no negotiations are happening right now on BBB. (The White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have disputed this characterization.)
The quiet cannot last … or can it?
What Congress Wants to Do
Democrats still hold the White House, Senate, and House. Amidst challenging public polling, the party wants to achieve a lot before voters cast their ballots in November. There is, of course, the Build Back Better plan, which would invest trillions of dollars in everything from housing to pre-kindergarten to clean energy programs. Democrats also would like to send new cybersecurity measures to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure to the president’s desk, along with legislation that would curb the growth of the nation’s biggest tech companies. And improving the nation’s immigration system always is on Democrats’ to-do list.
Before lawmakers turn to that, however, the Senate Democratic leadership will try to finish up a significant piece of business from 2021: voting rights legislation.
Senate Majority Schumer plans to force senators to go on record regarding the Freedom to Vote Act, which would expand early and absentee voting and make it easier for people to comply with state voter identification laws, by January 17. Republicans will almost certainly block the bill using the Senate filibuster.
When they do, Majority Leader Schumer has pledged that he will then ask senators to vote to change the chamber’s filibuster rules. (It still takes the support of 60 senators to overcome a filibuster for legislation.) The problem? Sen. Schumer needs the support of every Democratic senator to change the rules and, again, Sen. Manchin (along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) is not aligned with his party.
While Democrats are under enormous pressure from their core supporters, not to mention the president, to get the BBB, voting rights legislation, and other priorities completed, there is no real deadline by which they have to act. Majority Leader Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could spend all year trying to get these bills through Congress -- and they might. That’s because there are very few things that federal lawmakers must do during the second session of the 117th Congress.
What Congress Must Do
Each year, Congress has a list of “must pass” pieces of legislation. If lawmakers do not act on these bills, programs (or program funding) will expire. This year, the list of “must pass” legislation is much shorter than usual.
Obviously the most prominent and pressing pieces of “must pass” legislation are the 12 annual appropriations bills. If Congress does not agree to, and the president does not sign, spending legislation by the time the clock strikes midnight on September 30, entire portions of the federal government cannot open on October 1. If the bills are not even close to being done, however, Congress does have an out: lawmakers can pass a continuing resolution (CR). A CR keeps the government running at the previous year’s spending levels for a certain amount of time.
That actually is where lawmakers in the 117th Congress find themselves now. Late last year, they agreed to a fiscal year (FY) 2022 CR that expires on February 18, 2022. That legislation also extended two major programs — the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides aid to businesses and families who have been devastated by hurricanes and other water disasters, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides aid to families struggling with poverty.
Congress either must pass another CR and extend these programs by February 18 or they, and most of the federal government, will shut down.
If lawmakers can manage to sew up those “must pass” bills, they will almost immediately have to start on the spending legislation for FY 2023. Traditionally, the president must submit his annual budget to Congress no later than the first Monday of every February, kicking off Congress’ own budget-writing process and the creation of the next year’s spending bills. While President Bill Clinton and every subsequent president have submitted their budgets late, Congress still must pass spending legislation by September 30.
Confused yet? Essentially what these deadlines mean is that lawmakers could be sewing up last year’s budget at the same time they are writing the next one.
That’s a lot of work, for sure, but according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, it’s most of what Congress must get done this year.
The only other must pass items are:
Tax Extenders. Several tax programs, including energy-related tax credits and the expanded childcare tax credit, expired at the end of 2021. Democrats will try to pass a tax extenders package either through the BBB or through standalone legislation that would renew these programs on a retroactive basis. A handful of other tax provisions, including deductions for companies that write off meals for business purposes, expire on December 31, 2022. Congress will try to deal with those too.
Medicare Cuts. After the February 18 continuing resolution/NFIP/TANF deadline, the next programmatic expiration doesn’t come until March 31. Late last year, lawmakers approved a plan to delay cuts to Medicare until mid-spring. If Congress does not act, Medicare spending will be cut two percent across the board. The House and Senate votes to stall these cuts were close last year. This matter will take up some debate time this spring.
Other Medicare-Related Issues. Medicare physician bonus payments expire on December 31, as does a delay in rules regarding how Medicare handles radiation oncology.
Notably absent from this list is any concern about the debt ceiling. As readers might recall, last year lawmakers approved legislation that raises the debt ceiling through at least early 2023.
And that’s really it. While there’s quite a bit that Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House would like to see happen on Capitol Hill this year, there’s not much that Congress actually must do in 2022.
The Congressional Calendar and Election 2022 Pressures
The lack of “must do” work is reflected in this year’s congressional calendar — at least the calendar for the U.S. House. Generally, House lawmakers spend more time in Washington than their Senate counterparts. Largely as a result of the challenging political climate for House Democrats, that tradition is flipped on its head this year.
According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, the upper chamber of Congress will be in session for 171 days in 2022 over 36 different weeks. It will be in session 146 days before Election Day. In contrast, Roll Call reported that the House will be in only 112 total days in 2022, over just 21 weeks. The newspaper noted, “At no point are votes expected to take place in the House for more than three consecutive weeks.”
Republicans have criticized the House calendar, which was put together by the Democratic leadership. “Why don’t they want to go to work for the American people?” a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asked The Hill. That theme is likely one we will see parroted throughout the country by Republicans seeking to gain an advantage at the polls.
The House calendar, of course, reflects the fact that Democrats are facing enormous pressure going into the 2022 midterm elections. The elections website FiveThirtyEight has a brand new analysis out this morning that explains the headwinds facing Democrats, especially those in the House.
Based solely on President Biden’s current approval rating, for example, Democrats are facing the prospect of historic losses this November. According to FiveThirtyEight, “[N]o president with an underwater net approval rating since World War II has ever lost fewer seats [in the House] than Obama’s 13 in 2014. And the only times in the modern era that the president’s party gained House seats (1998 and 2002), the president’s net approval rating was astronomically high.”
House Democrats also are facing an uphill battle because more from their ranks have opted not to run again. It is much harder to hold a congressional seat if there is no incumbent on the ballot and, already, 25 House Democrats have decided to retire and not run for reelection later this year. That compares to just 11 retirements among House Republicans.
Will more time at home, and less in Washington, help Democrats’ prospects? In 1982, former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill led Democrats to victory with the saying “all politics is local.” Election 2022 will test that lesson.