Legislative Logjam

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One silent victim of the coronavirus pandemic is the 2020 congressional legislative agenda. As the virus took hold in the United States, lawmakers in the House and Senate rightly jettisoned their to-do lists to focus exclusively on emergency relief legislation. As a result, they face a legislative logjam of expired or expiring programs that will demand attention – and soon – before the November election and campaign season overwhelm the calendar. 

The current congressional to-do list:

  • Reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (expired). FISA is a collection of rules and processes that regulate the federal government’s foreign intelligence-gathering practices. The broader FISA program will run through December 2023, but four key surveillance authorities lapsed on March 15. If these authorities lapse, the U.S. intelligence surveillance programs would mostly revert to their pre-9/11 status, hampering the federal government’s powers to investigate terrorism. The Senate passed an amended version of an original House bill and then sent it back. The House may consider the revised measure this week. 

  • Reauthorize of the Violence Against Women Act (expired). VAWA is an umbrella vehicle that authorizes federal funding for several criminal justice and community-based grant programs designed to reduce domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also authorizes federal spending on programs that support victims of these crimes. VAWA was allowed to expire in February 2019 over policy disagreements, but recent reports of increased domestic violence associated with the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders have renewed attention. Failure to reauthorize VAWA won’t inhibit funding, but it will leave dangerous loopholes intact and thwart any effort to improve and expand services. It also sends a message to appropriators that VAWA programs are not a congressional priority. The House passed a comprehensive VAWA reform bill in April 2019 and it has been sitting on the Senate calendar ever since. 

  • Renew the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (expires September 30). The 2015 FAST Act provides federal funding for highway construction and transit projects through the end of the current federal fiscal year. Without reauthorization or a short-term extension, state transportation projects that rely on federal revenues will have to halt existing activities. Complicating reauthorization is a federal funding shortfall. Since 2008, fuel tax revenue has not kept pace with authorized spending levels, forcing Congress to plug the gap with budget gimmicks. To pass a comprehensive 5- or 6-year highway reauthorization bill in 2020, lawmakers will need to find approximately $88 – $110 billion in new revenue in addition to the fuel tax. To date, neither the House nor the Senate has produced legislation, although the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved legislation earlier this year.

  • National Flood Insurance Program (expires September 30). Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the U.S and the NFIP is the main source of primary flood insurance for residential properties. The program insures over 22,000 communities across all 50 states and territories and provides more than $1.3 trillion in coverage. Reauthorization has been hobbled for years by disagreements over unpopular but necessary financial and policy reforms, forcing Congress to pass 15 short-term reauthorizations just to keep the program afloat. Without reauthorization or short-term extension, the NFIP will be unable to write new contracts and expiring contracts would not be renewed. 

In addition to these long-standing federal programs, several temporary pandemic relief programs will expire soon, too. The authority to issue loans through the CARES Act small business Paycheck Protection Program will end June 30, and the $600 per week pandemic-related unemployment insurance benefit will expire July 1. 

Lastly, lawmakers will need to complete their most fundamental task: fund the government for the next fiscal year which begins October 1. While it is virtually certain that Congress will punt major spending decisions until after the November election, political battles over border wall funding, the ability to transfer appropriated funds to other accounts, and backfilling military spending accounts that were raided to build new sections of the border wall will make passing a “clean” continuing resolution a bare-knuckles brawl.

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