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The 114th Congress: What to Look Out for in 2015

January 9, 2015

On Tuesday, January 6, the 114th Congress convened for the first time, after the 113th Congress officially adjourned on January 5. The new Congress takes over following the November election, in which Republicans expanded their majority in the House and won control of the Senate. For more information on the election results and what they mean for farm and food policy, read our earlier post. In this post, we consider the types of legislative action we might see in 2015.

The Veto Threat

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that he wants to work in a bipartisan fashion, to forge compromises, and to find areas of common interest between Congress and President Obama. This is important because, despite controlling a majority of the House and Senate, Republicans do not hold sufficient seats to overcome a presidential veto. Congress can override a presidential veto if two thirds of both the House and Senate vote to support an override.

In this context, it is expected that Republicans will pursue multiple strategies – passing “messaging” legislation with no hope of being signed by the President and no hope of overriding a veto, seeking to put together a super majority to successfully override expected presidential vetoes, and pursuing compromise legislation that the President is likely to sign.

All Things Budget

In February or more likely in March, the Obama Administration is expected to release its FY 2016 budget request. Each year, the Administration sends Congress a list of funding requests in an effort to influence budgeting and appropriations decisions. The budget request often kick starts the annual budget and appropriations process, during which the House and Senate Budget Committees write budget resolutions and following that, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees write annual spending bills. Visit our earlier post to learn more about the President’s FY 2015 budget request.

Following the release of the President’s budget request, the House and Senate Budget Committees will release their respective budget resolutions for FY 2016. A budget resolution is a non-binding agreement that guides budget and appropriations decisions in a particular fiscal year. While rare in recent years, the House and Senate can conference their budget resolutions, creating a unified budget approach by both houses of Congress. Budget resolutions are not legislation and are therefore not signed by the president, and hence the veto dynamic and the compromise approach that comes with it are not in play.

A House-Senate budget agreement happened in late 2013 for the first time since 2009. It seems likely that with control of both houses, the GOP will try to have a joint agreement again this year. In any event, budget resolutions have significant influence over the annual appropriations process because they include discretionary spending caps that dictate the total size of the discretionary spending pie that the appropriators will then carve into discrete pieces.  The majority of federal spending is mandatory.

Reconciliation? One tool that Congress is likely to consider this year is budget reconciliation. Budget resolutions occasionally include reconciliation instructions, which direct one or more authorizing committees (e.g. the Agriculture Committee or the Transportation Committee, etc.) to cut spending to meet a certain deficit reduction target by a certain deadline. Under reconciliation, the authorizing committees are generally given wide flexibility to adjust any policies under their jurisdiction to get to the deficit-reduction target. They are also given the same target date to submit their product to the Budget Committees, and their bills come to the floor with a much greater degree of protection, and without the opportunity for a filibuster in the Senate.

The Republican majority in both the House and Senate is likely to use the budget resolution process, with or without reconciliation, to try to adjust federal spending, and possibly to reform the tax code. They will have to walk a careful line, however, if they plan to use the budget reconciliation process to send legislation to the President for his signature and face a possible veto threat. That dynamic will almost certainly mean very heavy White House involvement in any mega tax and spending deal.

Sequestration: In addition to budget reconciliation, Congress may or may not choose to repeal or modify automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, as part of the budgeting process in 2015. Sequestration was passed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and requires automatic, across-the-board spending cuts each year until 2024 (originally ending in 2021, but Congress twice extended sequestration).

In late 2013, Congress passed a joint budget resolution that eliminated sequestration cuts for some programs in FY 2014 and FY 2015. The full gamut of automatic cuts are set to resume in FY 2016, unless additional action is taken to forestall them. A number of key Republicans have said that they intend to keep sequestration in place. Others are anxious to increase the military spending cap, and still others want to adjust domestic social spending from what will otherwise be a significant cut.

NSAC strongly opposes sequestration. Like many in Congress, we see it as a careless and irresponsible meat-ax style deficit reduction tool that deserves to be eliminated and replaced with real legislating and real appropriating.

Debt Ceiling: At some point later in the year, Congress will need to act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, which comes back into effect on March 15. The debt ceiling limits how much money the United State Government can borrow, and in the past, Republicans, Democrats, and the White House have battled over whether or not the ceiling should be suspended. The Treasury Department is expected to use existing authority to meet fiscal obligations for several months after March 15; once the debt limit suspension expires, however, some in Congress may demand spending cuts in exchange for raising the ceiling.

Appropriations and Policy Riders: Beginning in March, the various House and Senate appropriations subcommittees will hold hearings to consider the Obama Administration’s FY 2016 budget request. Then, once the budget resolution is dispensed with, subcommittees will begin to develop appropriations legislation for each issue area (agriculture, environment, education, etc) before bringing that legislation before the full Appropriations Committees, and the full House and Senate. It is common for the annual appropriations process to last right up until the end of the fiscal year (September 30), and not so infrequently, beyond the end of the fiscal year.

In theory, appropriations bills deal with discretionary spending and authorization bills deal with policy and, in some specific instances, mandatory spending. Increasingly, the line is becoming blurred as more and more policy “riders” are attached to spending bills. Last year the number of policy riders passed by the House reached an all-time high. There is no sign that this trend will reverse itself this year. From environmental protection to nutrition policy to agricultural marketing rules to health care, key Republican appropriators have made it clear they intend to pursue riders with vigor. If there is to be a final appropriations bill by the end of 2015, 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.

Homeland Security Appropriations and Immigration

When Congress passed the FY 2015 appropriations package in December, they only funded the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through February 27, 2015. This was an effort by Republicans to defund the President’s executive action on immigration. Congress will need to develop compromise funding legislation for DHS before the deadline to prevent the Department from shutting down. At the same time, we may see some attempt to pass piecemeal immigration reform, or much more likely, an attempt to limit the President’s executive authority.

Whatever happens on the DHS appropriations bill, there will also likely be some attempt at piecemeal legislating on immigration issues. The Senate is unlikely to take legislation up unless the House first passes something. Whether the House will pass anything, and whether agricultural labor is one of the areas included, very much remains to be seen.

Child Nutrition 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 for short (CNR). The last CNR is set to expire in September 2015, setting the stage for Congress to write a new bill in early 2015. CNR authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Food, Summer Food Service, and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) programs.

NSAC is taking steps to ensure that the next CNR strengthens farm to school and local food sourcing at schools and other educational and child care settings across the country. Along with legislative champions in the House and Senate, NSAC and the National Farm to School Network are preparing to introduce the Farm to School Act of 2015, a marker bill to improve and expand the USDA Farm to School Grant program. Anticipated introduction of this marker bill is slated for early 2015. Additionally, NSAC plans to work with legislators to increase options for schools and other, similar institutions seeking to buy more local food to incorporate into meals.

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. Other issues with food and agriculture connections may be on the list for Congress this year, including, tax reform, mandatory livestock price reporting, a transportation bill, and trade agreement authority, to name a few. We will do our best to keep readers apprised of upcoming legislative items of interest as the congressional year begins to play out.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Nutrition & Food Access

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