It appears as of this writing that the House and Senate are to begin their post-election “lame duck” session Nov. 16 and probably end business within a week. Washington insiders want to know what will get done and what will be put off until next year’s 109th Congress.
Lobbyists, Capitol Hill staffers and pundits alike all seem to have their own theories.
What we do know is that President George W. Bush earned plenty of “political capital” on Nov. 2 and has said he is ready to start spending it. We know that when the 109th congressional session begins in January, the Republican Party will continue to control the House and the Senate.
We also know surface transportation reauthorization legislation, aka the highway bill, has not yet been finished and funding for its programs have been extended six times since its original expiration in September of 2003.
Nevertheless, for political and strategic reasons, the lame duck session should be fairly short. The Republicans want to complete unfinished business next year when they have a greater majority of votes in the House and Senate. On the other side, considering their election losses, the Democrats may not be motivated to drag the session out any longer than necessary.
Why is the length of the lame duck session so important and of so much interest to us transportation folks? Because Congress’ “to do” list leaves little opportunity for them to make progress on the highway bill this year.
The agenda for the lame duck session is as follows:
- Agree on how to reform the intelligence community;
- Increase the government’s debt limit;
- Complete remaining appropriations bills; and
- Try to resuscitate the highway 24 bill.
Members of the House and Senate conference committee are divided over how to implement some of the September 11 Commission recommendations and overhaul our country’s intelligence-gathering system. The Senate version of the bill would give a national intelligence director budget authority over all of the intelligence agencies and would make public the total amount of money the government spends on intelligence gathering.
The House version gives the intelligence director less authority and would allow funding for intelligence to go through secret accounts to Pentagon intelligence agencies. This legislation is a high priority for Congress and the Bush administration, but there is a long way to go to find common ground.
Congress is under pressure to quickly clear a legislative fix to increase the amount of debt that the federal government is authorized to carry beyond the current $7.4 trillion ceiling. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow has had to use “accounting maneuvers” for the past month to keep the government within its debt limits. This situation also plays a role in restraining how much the president or Congress will be willing to spend on the unfinished appropriations bills.
Each fiscal year Congress must pass 13 spending or “appropriations” bills that provide funding for all federal agencies and their affiliated programs. Only four of these bills were enacted before Congress recessed before the November elections. The approved bills pertained to defense, military construction, homeland security and the District of Columbia. The major reason that lawmakers are returning after elections is to finish the remaining nine bills, including one for the Department of Transportation.
At this point, Congress could attempt to try and pass those nine bills individually or it can combine them into one huge omnibus bill. Either way, it will be no small task to accomplish. There is an $8 billion difference in the amount of funding proposed by the House and Senate versions for these bills that must be reconciled.
President Bush has signaled that he intends to be aggressive in negotiations on the remaining appropriations bills and will press for limited spending while pushing for his own priorities. He is threatening to call for year-long continuing resolutions on the bills that are not completed during the lame duck session.
House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-FL, and his Senate counterpart, Chairman Ted Stevens, D-AK, will both be term-limited out of their chairmanships at the end of this session. They will want to complete the bills this year while they can still steer funding to their home states. That may make it easier for the White House and GOP leaders to bend the chairmen to their will on other issues.
President Bush has yet to veto a single bill. Still, conservatives have been urging the president to make a statement on spending, and Young and Stevens probably will be reluctant to risk a veto that would delay action on the appropriations bills until next year.
There is obviously quite a lot for Congress to accomplish in a short amount of time. Weigh that against the problems that already exist with the highway bill and you can see that current opportunities to get the bill done are slim to none.
The safest bet is that the highway bill will not be finished in the current 108th Session of Congress and that the House and Senate will have to reintroduce their versions of the legislation next year during the 109th session.
If and when their bills are reintroduced, much of the processes that have previously occurred will be repeated. There will be new hearings on various portions of the bills, committee meetings to amend and pass the bills, and a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences in bills. There will be new opportunities to get provisions into the legislation that will help small-business and professional truckers and new challenges to keep bad provisions out.
With that said, one never really knows what will come to pass on Capitol Hill. Anything can happen.
Please e-mail me with any questions that you may have about terms or congressional procedures that are used in this column or that you see and hear on the news or on C-SPAN. Also, please be sure to continue to contact your lawmakers and covey to them your thoughts and concerns.
Rod Nofziger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.