The Clock is Ticking for GOP to Figure Out Debt, Tax Reform and Healthcare

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

The Clock is Ticking for GOP to Figure Out Debt, Tax Reform and Healthcare

Oct 16th, 2017 2 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Tommy Binion

Director, Congressional and Executive Branch Relations

Thomas is responsible for Heritage's many programs on Capitol Hill and its engagement with the administration.

Key Takeaways

Some had called for Congress to skip this year’s recess and make greater progress on the big promises of their agenda.

Neither chamber has passed an FY 18 budget to govern this year’s spending or to unlock the reconciliation process for next year.

Without the luxury of time to debate and negotiate in September, congressional leaders should be working on these throughout August.

August recess has arrived, and that’s a big relief for many members and staff on Capitol Hill (and local commuters!). Some had called for Congress to skip this year’s recess and make greater progress on the big promises of their agenda. After all, the future of ObamaCare repeal is uncertain, as is next year’s budget and spending.

On the bright side, the Senate confirmed a relatively large tranche of President Trump’s nominees before recessing, and negotiations are full steam ahead on tax reform.

With Congress out of session, members and staff have much more of the most precious resource: time.

Without committee hearings and mark-ups, fundraisers, floor votes, and district fly-ins filling their calendar, members have time to negotiate and craft the legislation they’ll be working on this fall. Make no mistake, if they follow recent trends, they’ll be back to 11th hour negotiations and midnight reveals of the latest draft text, unsure of whether or not they’ve successfully achieved consensus.

Here are the big legislative projects for the fall that congressional leaders should be working now, well before the deadline.

FY 2018 Budget and Spending: On Sept. 30, discretionary spending will expire and Congress will need to renew it in some form or fashion. Under regular order, both chambers would process 12 separate appropriations bills. With so little time, and so little progress already made, Congress is faced with only a few options. Leaders in the House are said to be considering combining all 12 bills into one, but allowing for a relatively open amendment process on the floor. No progress has been reported in bringing Democrats to the table in the Senate or attaching major pieces of Trump’s agenda to the spending bill, although both of those will be necessary for passage.

Neither chamber has passed an FY 18 budget to govern this year’s spending or to unlock the reconciliation process for next year. Usually the budget is a strictly partisan exercise, but the majority party has yet to form consensus on even the most basic aspects of the budget.

Debt ceiling: Sometime in late September or early October (depending on whether you believe the Treasury Department or the CBO) the Congress will need to address the debt ceiling. Under President Obama, Republicans constantly sought to attach spending reform to any debt-ceiling hikes, winning some major victories along the way such as the Budget Control Act.

Many senior Republicans, however, are calling for a clean increase of the debt ceiling. Is it possible that conservatives will accept less under President Trump than they got from President Obama? To attach decent reform measures, they’ll need to start working on those proposals right away.

Healthcare: It’s quite obvious the president is disappointed in the Senate’s failure to repeal ObamaCare. Given the magnitude of that promise and the pressure to repeal, it is likely the Senate will need to return that issue. Senate leaders should use the August break to work through difference on health care. After seven years of repeal promises, “not enough time” won’t be an acceptable excuse.

Tax reform: Public dialogue on tax reform has yet to reach a fever pitch. Most observers think Congress will get this done, but no one is talking specifics. To avoid another disaster like health care, Republicans will need to spend ample time working through the details of tax reform.

Federal Aviation Administration, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the National Flood Insurance Program: All three of these major authorizations are due Sept. 30. Under normal circumstances, these three would spend weeks of floor time in both chambers. Without the luxury of time to debate and negotiate in September, congressional leaders should be working on these throughout August.

Despite their lack of success this year, Republican leaders decided to keep August after all. If they want to avoid a repeat of their failures in the early goings this year, they need to give up on the 11th hour strategy, and do the hard work of making sausage this August.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 8/15/17