Congress controls the nation’s purse strings, including both the fiscal year budget and overall federal borrowing authority. On the budget, Republicans have signaled that they want a substantial increase in defense spending. Democrats have insisted on an equal increase in discretionary domestic spending. There appear to be enough Republican deficit hawks — especially in the Senate — so that some Democrat votes would be needed to pass a budget. While it is possible that Congress will simply continue current spending caps, there will be pressure in both parties to see some sort of budget-increase deal.
Congress at the end of last year extended the budget deadline until Jan. 19, with a governmental shutdown looming if action is not taken. It is like a giant game of “who will blink first,” with each party trying to put the blame for any impasse — and resulting shutdown — on the other side.
A spending caps deal could lead to a more thorough-going spending bill, with important implications for farm bill consideration. Failure to reach agreement on spending caps likely will lead to another temporary continuation of program funding at current levels, as neither side really wishes to risk blame for a shutdown.
There also is other unfinished business carried over from Congress’ first session. Senator Susan Collins of Maine extracted from Majority leader Mitch McConnell a promise for votes on two health care spending measures. Senators from states hard hit by last year’s hurricanes want to top up the federal assistance agreed to last year.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program — popular on both sides of the aisle — got a short-term continuation of funding, but a more lasting solution is needed. Resolving uncertainties around the status of so-called “dreamers” also is pressing. And the debt limit on federal borrowing will need to be revisited by spring, when it is likely to be exceeded. So, there is plenty to keep Congress busy dealing with deferred items even before one gets to new proposals.
Among new proposals that could be contentious and time-consuming, three stand out. With President Trump having de-certified the Iran nuclear deal and now pressing for support of reformers’ protests, Congress may attempt to pass additional sanctions. The president also has expressed interest in an infrastructure initiative (including high-speed internet for rural areas), and there is support for this idea — if not all of the means of doing so — in both parties. A FY 2019 budget debate is assured; whether it veers into entitlement reforms through reconciliation is less clear. Beyond these predictable issues, there are always tensions around terrorism, Middle East peace prospects and North Korea that could take up the time and attention of Congress.
When Congress reconvenes, two new Senators will be in place — Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, and Tina Smith, replacing fellow Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, who resigned under pressure from his party’s leadership over sexual harassment allegations. Jones’ surprise victory over Roy Moore to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat has narrowed the Republican margin in the Senate to 51 to 49. That likely will increase partisan sniping while also constraining McConnell’s capacity to act without regard to inputs from across the aisle. He is likely to want to avoid controversial issues, which also could bring him into conflict with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is anxious to use his more comfortable Republican majority to tackle entitlements and welfare reform.
One interesting development during recess was Senator Orrin Hatch’s decision not to run for re-election in 2018. He has introduced a bill granting or extending tax credits on a host of energy measures, including energy-efficient buildings, biofuels, fuel cells, nuclear power, geothermal energy, carbon capture and more. It is a measure the agricultural community will want to watch closely, as it may be especially attractive as Hatch’s last act as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. In general, however, prospects for less partisanship seem dim.
Historically, farm bills have been written by the Agriculture committees of both houses, with bipartisan support. Urban liberals interested in feeding programs and Midwestern conservatives supportive of farm programs have collaborated to garner enough support to pass legislation. That regional dynamic, however, has come under increasing stress in recent years.
At the same time, political developments since President Trump’s election in 2016 have undermined Republican confidence in their ability to hold their House and Senate majorities. How each party reads the political tea leaves between bipartisan action “to get some things done” versus appealing to the raw emotions of their respective core supporters will shape the legislative environment in 2018.
At this point, a one-year extension might hold sufficient appeal to both sides. Like other issues, it kicks the can down the road past the next election.