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Deadlines Begin To Hem In Congress

By Steve Bell

Monday, January 30, 2017

Despite the rousing reassurances by Republican congressional leaders at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia last week, it remains clear that Congress’ schedule is so jammed that the “first 200 day” pledges will never materialize. How President Trump reacts to this inevitable reality will reveal how deep the rifts remain between the president’s timetable and Congress’ legislative processes.

The first deadline Congress set for itself as it began the “repeal and replace” effort on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has come and gone. Committees were instructed under reconciliation to report legislation to repeal much of the ACA by January 27. They reportedly remain hard at work to produce these bills as soon as possible.

Deep the rifts remain between President Trump’s timetable and Congress’ legislative processes.

That miss symbolizes the massive legislative agenda ahead for the Senate and House. That agenda focuses predominately on fiscal policy—delayed Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations, pending expiration of Treasury’s ability to issue new debt as of March 16, and possible defense supplemental appropriations from the president.

Looming Deadlines

The following is merely a partial list of the fiscal must-do items:

  • Senate confirmation of presidential nominees that require advise and consent (delayed until February for most Cabinet nominees)
  • Submission of a Fiscal Year 2018 budget by President Trump (usually in early February, likely delayed until late May)
  • Expiration of Treasury’s ability to issue new debt (March 16, with probable invocation of use of “extraordinary measures” to allow the nation’s debts to be paid on time and in full through at least mid-summer of 2017)
  • Statutory deadline for Senate and House Budget Committees’ Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution (normally April 15, but indefinitely delayed)
  • Expiration of the current Continuing Resolution for Appropriations for FY 2017 (April 28, complicated by potential supplemental requests by the administration for defense, perhaps infrastructure, and anomalies)
  • Hearings on President Trump’s FY 2018 budget (normally in April-May, delayed until June at the earliest due to the administration’s delayed budget submission)
  • Appropriations committees issue individual bills for FY 2018 spending (June-July normally, but likely badly delayed, leading to a Continuing Resolution for Appropriations for FY 2018 on October 1, 2017)
  • FY 2018 budget resolution could pass by June, possibly with reconciliation instructions involving tax reform
  • Possible response of relevant committees to any reconciliation instructions issued by the FY 2018 budget resolution, if the resolution’s conference report receives House and Senate approval (unknown as to approval and reconciliation report date)
  • Arrival of the “X-date”—exhaustion of available money through extraordinary measures when Treasury no longer has cash to continue paying all of the federal government’s obligations in full and on time (BPC estimates at some point beyond mid-summer)

Meeting Deadlines Unlikely 

In short, even if Congress took no recesses and worked full five-day weeks, experience teaches us that Hill staff and members cannot meet this must-do fiscal agenda.

Complicating the fiscal work is the recently released Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecast that projects record deficits and debt accumulation during the next ten years. If one adds defense and possible infrastructure supplemental spending requests, coupled with increasing interest rates, even CBO’s lamentable projections may prove optimistic.

This fiscal deterioration may lead many congressional members to balk at passing a budget resolution that contains such deficit levels. If that occurs, then it becomes impossible to project anything but fiscal gridlock. While goals to repeal the ACA by February and begin to legislate tax reform, infrastructure, and related measures by mid-year are laudable, only the most Pollyannaish congressional observer would believe the goals achievable.

Complicating the debate is a new report that projects record deficits and debt accumulation over the next decade. 

Congress must also deal with many non-budgetary deadlines. The Children’s Health Insurance Program funding reauthorization demands passage in the first half of the year if it is to avoid expiration at the end of September and accommodate state budget cycles, most of which begin July 1.

In addition, the various prescription-drug and medical-device user-fee laws require reauthorization by the end of the current fiscal year. If passage fails by the end of July, Federal Drug Administration employees face possible pink slips in August. Various Medicare provisions also need extension, unless Congress decides to let them lapse. 

Finally, if Congress decides to take up a Congressional Review Act (CRA), overturning a number of final regulations issued by the Obama Administration after July 12, 2016, consideration of that bill will further delay any action on fiscal legislation. Although CRA legislation avoids filibuster, it will be thoroughly debated, especially in the Senate.

If some outside event occurs—Russian aggression, Chinese adventurism, or North Korean action, for example—then it may take until 2018 for final action on tax reform or even the FY 2018 appropriations process.

Meanwhile, President Trump may become increasingly frustrated by the realities of the powers contained within Article I of the Constitution. How he reacts should make for interesting times.

KEYWORDS: DEBT LIMIT, AFFORDABLE CARE ACT, CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE, DEPARTMENT OF TREASURY, CHILDREN'S HEALTH INSURANCE PROGRAM, TAX REFORM