For most people, 2017 has yet to reach its midpoint. But that is not the case for Congress, which has already burned more than half its scheduled legislative days without accomplishing much of its historic agenda.
In recent years, partisan gridlock has kept Congress from major achievements. But this year was supposed to be different. For the first time in a decade, Republicans have control of the White House as well as both chambers of Congress. Expectations for action were high.
But expectations have been lowered as the first five months went by and legislative accomplishments remained sparse. The House passed a version of a health care bill that the Senate has treated as radioactive. Other priorities remain stuck further up the pipeline, and the prospect of a banner year on Capitol Hill is ebbing fast.
How can that be when it’s still technically spring? It has to do with congressional rules and the congressional calendar.
There is still time for the Hill to move the repeal-and-replacement of the Obamacare, the annual federal budget, some kind of tax cut and a debt ceiling increase. There is still a chance for an infrastructure bill and a start on rewriting the underlying tax code.
But August comes at you fast, and after that Capitol Hill’s calendar is dominated by recesses and holidays — with September devoted to spending bills that keep the government up and running.
To be fair, Congress regards time away from Washington as time on the job — officially “district work periods.” This means that you are working back home, meeting with constituents and listening to their concerns. Some members visit military bases around the world or look into how American foreign aid is being spent.
These congressional delegations or “co-dels” as they are known, have often been derided as junkets — thinly veiled excuses for world travel at taxpayer expense. But they can also be important in fulfilling Congress’ oversight role.
So we are not saying that Congress out of town is Congress goofing off. What we are saying is that when Congress leaves town, it cannot legislate. And that means the opportunity for Congress to accomplish its agenda — or that of President Trump — is rapidly diminishing.
And the dwindling weeks on the calendar are not even the worst of it. In terms of Hill procedure, the best chance to pass bills is between the beginning of the Congress in the first week of January and the end of the fiscal year in the last week of September.
Why? Because this nine-month window offers the best time to pass major legislation affecting the tax-and-spending policies of the federal government using a process known as reconciliation.
That’s the kind of word that means something to insiders (reconciling new fiscal policy with existing law). And also tends to make everyone else stop paying attention. But bear with us.
This process, invented in the 1970s and first used extensively in the early 1980s, is how big tax cuts were passed in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and again in the first year of George W. Bush.
It’s part of how the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) got through in 2010. And it’s important to everything else the Congress will or won’t get done this year.
It allows bills that affect revenue and outlays to pass both House and Senate by a simple majority vote with no filibusters allowed. That means a mere 51 votes are required in the Senate, instead of 60, which would otherwise be needed to advance a bill.
The majority Republicans of 2017 can legislate fiscal policy without a single Democratic vote, so long as they stay within the limits and rules of the reconciliation process.
You may have noticed that the 60-vote requirement to defeat filibusters has been in the news lately. That is because the majority Republicans changed the rules regarding filibusters to get President Trump’s first appointee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, confirmed.
Pleased with that outcome, the president has subsequently said the filibuster should be eliminated entirely — for legislation as well as appointments. He has repeatedly tweeted about it. But the Senate doesn’t want to eliminate the filibuster for legislation. The institution doesn’t want to, and the individual senators do not want to.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there is not one Republican who wants to kill the filibuster for legislation. Not one. And, obviously, the minority Democrats aren’t eager to kill the filibuster either, at least not while it’s their last remaining weapon in the minority.
So reconciliation stands as the Republicans’ best friend, so long as they move the health care bill soon — preferably before they move the 2018 fiscal year budget and complicate the availability of the reconciliation procedure.
That is why McConnell was eager to get health care done early. He was counting on reconciliation to allow passage with just a bare majority, and he was also hoping to have as much time as possible for other matters to have the Senate’s full attention.
So, for all practical purposes, this Congress’ best window of opportunity for major achievements is going to close rather soon.
That would be OK if all the big stuff was well on its way to passage. But nothing could be further from the reality of this moment.
On the health care overhaul, the Senate is still stuck at the “task force” stage with a “pig in a poke” bill McConnell refuses to make public. And the struggle over the budget and the dozen appropriations bills needed to avoid a government shutdown has barely begun.
Somewhere in the next several weeks, the Congress must also raise the debt ceiling to permit more borrowing to cover the bonds and other securities that are coming due. The alternative would be the first default in U.S. history, and at least a partial government shutdown.
Suffice it to say neither a shutdown nor a default would be in the game plan for the congressional leadership. The president has spoken of a “good shutdown” that might refocus people’s priorities, but that is not a tactic embraced on Capitol Hill. In fact, it sends shudders.
Painful though these circumstances may be, the prospect of shutdown or default has yet to break through the other preoccupations of the moment or receive much attention from the media.
There is just too much other news, from the shooting at a congressional baseball practice to climate change to the president’s tweets — and all the distracting internal struggles fracturing the Republicans’ supposedly united front.
And the longer all these circumstances dominate, the less time there will be for Congress to do the legislative heavy lifting it needs to do now.
Watch more episodes of Ron’s Office Hours on the NPR YouTube channel.