September 9, 2015
Congress returned to Washington, D.C. this week to face a full fall agenda after more than one month away. The docket for the next three months includes:
Funding for Highways and the FAA
In July, Congress passed a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for transportation infrastructure repairs and updates. Congress initially believed that the $8.1 billion extension would last the Department of Transportation until the end of the calendar year. As such, the plan at the time of passage in July was to come back after recess to provide long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund.
This week, the Department of Transportation threw a possible wrench into that plan by announcing that the $8.1 billion would actually be sufficient to support operations through June 2016. The leaders of the congressional committees with jurisdiction of highway funding say that the new information will not derail their plans to pass a long-term funding measure before the end of the calendar year. Time will tell.
In addition to the Highway Trust Fund, funding authority for the FAA expires at the end of September. Congress will need to extend the funding bill, which it passed in 2012, or risk a shutdown of some FAA functions.
The Export-Import Bank, which finances exports of American goods, has been unable to guarantee loans since June after Congress allowed the Bank’s lending authority to expire. Reauthorization of the Bank’s authority is highly contentious and will likely feature into larger funding conversations this fall (see below).
In recent weeks, hardly a day goes by without national coverage of the President’s nuclear deal with Iran. Congress has 60 days to review the deal before the Administration can start lifting sanctions on Iran. That 60-day period expires on September 17. The House is likely to pass a resolution disproving of the Iran deal before the deadline. However, in the Senate, 42 Senators have pledged to support the deal, a number that is sufficient to block a vote on the disapproval resolution. Even if the vote were to occur in the Senate, the President would veto the resolution, and the Senate would not have the votes necessary to overturn the veto. Regardless of how the votes play out, the Iran deal will no doubt complicate the work of Congress this fall.
Country of Origin Labeling
In May, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that portions of U.S. Country of Origin labeling (COOL) rules violate WTO rules by discriminating against meat imports. The House has already passed a bill to repeal COOL, a move that has some support in the Senate. However, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and John Hoeven (R-ND) have introduced an alternative bill that would allow for voluntary labeling for the portions of COOL that are not WTO compliant. Their bill has the support of a majority of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is expected to take up the issue this fall.
Appropriations and the Debt Ceiling
The twelve House and Senate appropriations subcommittees developed their individual appropriations legislation for each issue area (agriculture, education, defense, environment, etc.) over the past few months before bringing that legislation before the full Appropriations Committees. On July 23, the Senate Committee on Appropriations cleared its final appropriations measure, marking full committee approval of all 12 appropriations bills in both the House and Senate for the first time since 2009. Under normal order, the next step would be consideration of each of the 12 bills on the floor of the House and Senate in time to then conference the bills to work out differences and pass final bills by the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
As has become customary of late, however, this will not happen. Instead, Congress will either pass a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) by September 30 keeping the government open but running with an extension of current year funding levels, or, the government will shut down. A short-term CR would likely to be for approximately three months, signaling that any final action on new spending bills will not occur until sometime in December.
Why the delay? The political and vote count situation demands on a ‘grand bargain’ on final spending levels between both houses of Congress and the White House. While negotiations over a grand bargain have been talked about for months and months now, there is no sign of any real discussions having started. Once the short-term CR is in place, however, the assumption is that things will finally get serious. One can only hope.
If there is a grand bargain, there will likely be a year-end “omnibus” appropriations bill that stitches all 12 appropriations bills together in a big package. If there is not, a full year CR, putting government programs on auto-pilot for all of fiscal year 2016 is the most likely alternative.
The to-be-hoped-for grand bargain will get very, very complicated, potentially including the highway bill, extensions of other expired or expiring laws, and raising the national debt ceiling. But for appropriations purposes, the basic contour of the bargain is clear – finding an agreement to increase both defense and domestic social spending by $30-40 billion above the spending caps established in 2011, bringing spending levels in real dollars back closer to where they were a decade ago.
To date, the GOP controlled congressional budget process has agreed on a $38 billion increase for defense and a $0 increase for domestic social spending (including food and agriculture). The appropriations bills cleared by committee therefore abide by those top line numbers, even though Democrats and the White House have vowed to block bills that do not increase domestic spending alongside defense spending.
While the nitty gritty details of allocating funding will take effort, the top line bargain to be struck is pretty simple and straightforward. The task, however, is made far more complicated by the trend, especially in the House, to add more and more policy “riders” to spending bills. Legislating policy changes on spending bills is technically a no-no, but is increasingly common. In 2014, the number of policy riders passed by the House reached an all-time high.
This year, the House bill for food and agriculture includes controversial riders relating to e-cigarettes, dietary guidelines, commodity subsidy payment limit loopholes, soil and wetland conservation, and research that involves human embryos, among others. Both the House and Senate bills include riders to restrict new nutrition standards for school meals as well as new menu labeling requirements. And relative to riders in other bills, especially those related to environmental regulation, the agriculture bill is relatively “clean”, which is saying a lot.
If there is to be a final appropriations bill by the end of the fiscal year, it will require significant negotiation not only within Congress but also between Congress and the White House, over which Obama Administration initiatives may or may not be blocked through this backdoor, policy rider method. The White House will most certainly be looking at the appropriations process with an eye toward also raising the debt ceiling, which must happen by the end of fall.
Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization
Congress revisits child nutrition program legislation approximately every five years in a single omnibus bill known as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, or Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR) for short. The current CNR is set to expire on September 30, and both the Senate and the House have yet to markup their respective pieces of legislation.
The Senate Agriculture Committee now has markup date of September 17, though there is no word as yet from the House Education and Workforce Committee on its markup date yet. It is highly likely that CNR will require a short term extension as well, which will most likely also last until mid- to late-December.
The 2010 CNR, titled “The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act“, included the most extensive changes to child nutrition programs since the 1970s, including enhanced nutrition standards that have come under fierce attack over the last couple of years. The Food and Agriculture program at the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a five-part blog series debunking some of the arguments against the new standards.
The 2010 bill also included first-time mandatory funding of $5 million annually for the Farm to School Grant program, a victory won by a coalition led by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition with the Community Food Security Coalition, National Farm to School Network, School Food FOCUS, and the Wallace Center at Winrock International.
As part of the upcoming CNR, Congress needs to build on the success of farm to school by strengthening and expanding the program’s scope and by providing additional mandatory funding. NSAC and the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) have diligently been working to advance farm to school priorities in the 2015 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.
While it is a bit concerning to have witnessed so little legislative action on CNR to date, necessitating a short term extension, putting child nutrition and school meals into the mix of a year-end mega-negotiations could actually improve its chances for passage in this calendar year. What would be unacceptable would be a full year extension rather than a short-term one, as that would signal little chance of having a new reauthorization until 2017 at the earliest, given the difficulty of passing major legislation in a presidential election year.