The House and Senate are in session this week.
The House returns from the Thanksgiving recess Tuesday. House Democrats will hold elections for conference leadership Wednesday, November 30. The elections were delayed just days after the election. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has emerged as a challenger to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is shuffling around her team in hopes to appease her members. The Congressional Black Caucus, however, isn’t happy with the proposed changes.
Before adjourning for the holiday break, Republican leaders ditched plans for an omnibus spending bill. Instead, Congress will vote on a short-term continuing resolution to fund the federal government through March 31 before current continuing resolution expires on December 9.
A short-term continuing resolution gives the incoming administration an opportunity to set its budgetary priorities for roughly six months of FY 2017. At the same time, though, the statutory due date for the administration’s FY 2018 budget is Monday, February 6. That deadline, however, is not strictly enforced by Congress.
The House is likely to vote on the 21st Century Cures Act, sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.). The bill has good intentions, as it would streamline Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that often slow innovation and research, but the original version of the bill, H.R. 6, which passed the House in July 2015, would also have given the National Institutes of Health (NIH) $8.75 billion in additional funding over the next five years while the FDA would receive an additional $550 million.
Cleverly designed to skirt the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, these funds were designated as mandatory spending, which, unlike discretionary spending, is set on autopilot in the budgetary process. After the five-year period, the additional funding will supposedly expire, but, as Milton Friedman once said, "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program." Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) authored an amendment, which FreedomWorks key voted, to change the designation of these funds from mandatory to discretionary. Unfortunately, the amendment was defeated on the House floor.
In the original version of the bill, the additional funding for the NIH and the FDA in the 21st Century Cures Act was partially paid for through the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), but this is bad policy. The SPR shouldn’t be used as a quasi-slush fund for Congress. If oil from the reserve is to be sold, the proceeds should be used for deficit reduction.
The 21st Century Cures Act will be added to H.R. 34 and voted on Wednesday.
The intelligence authorization bill is on the calendar for the week. The conference report for the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017, S. 2943, could come up for a vote in the lower chamber if an agreement is reached by the House and Senate conferees. President Barack Obama vetoed the previous iteration of the National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 1735, in October because the bill used the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account, which is designated for emergencies and war funding, as a way to avoid spending caps under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Apart from the 21st Century Cures Act and the two aforementioned authorization bills, much of the legislative agenda this week for the House is focused on veterans issues — including health care, education, and jobs — as well as some foreign policy issues. A few of the veterans-themed bills that will be considered this week are sponsored by House Freedom Caucus members. Most of the bills on the calendar will be considered under a suspension of the rules, meaning that a two-thirds majority will be required.
The House will consider S. 2577, the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The bill, which passed the Senate by voice vote in June, reauthorizes a 2004 law designed to offer more protections for victims of crime, such as restitution and resources for forensic labs. It also gives access to post-conviction DNA testing, which could help exonerate those wrongly convicted of a crime.
Another bill on the calendar for the week is H.R. 5384, the Federal Register Printing Savings Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.). This bill would prohibit the Government Publishing Office from automatically printing and distributing copies of the Federal Register to congressional offices and committees.
Members and committees would still be able to request printed copies. While there is no score from the Congressional Budget Office, Russell’s office says the bill would "sav[e] hundreds of thousands of dollars each year." The printing of the Federal Register is relatively pointless, as it is available online in a searchable database.
The Senate returns Monday at 3:00 pm. The upper chamber is expected to vote this week on S. 2873, the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The bill requires HHS to study the use of technology to expand access to health care for patients who live in rural areas.
There is already talk of the Senate fundamentally altering the filibuster, a procedural tool that requires 60 votes before the chamber can proceed with limited debate on legislative issues. In 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and most of his conference gutted the filibuster for nominees to the executive branch and federal courts, except the Supreme Court. The filibuster for most legislation, including appropriations bills, remained intact. Budget resolutions and legislation subject to reconciliation cannot be filibustered.
It appears, though, that several Senate Republicans aren’t willing to make more changes to the filibuster because the changes to make it easier to move legislation when they are in the majority would be used against them when they are in the minority. That could prove problematic for legislation pushed by a Republican president.