Members of Congress just headed home after a brutal fight over repealing Obamacare, and they won’t be back in Washington until September 5. The battles that await them are even more impossible — and they’re only set to be in session for 12 days before they need to act to prevent a government shutdown and an economic crash.
“September is going to be a very difficult month,” said House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows shortly before the break. “I mean obviously all of this is coming into play right away, all the fiscal issues and deadlines are going to make it extremely difficult to get everything done in a piece-by-piece basis.”
Here’s a rundown of the legislative nightmares that await Congress this fall:
September 29: The Government Hits the Debt Ceiling
The Issue: During World War I Congress set a cap on the amount of money the federal government can borrow. It’s been raised dozens of times since then, usually without much fanfare, but in recent years Republicans decided to use the issue to attempt to extract concessions from President Obama. This is an effective (but insane) threat because experts say there would be all kinds of terrifying financial consequences to breaching the debt ceiling, like sending the U.S. into a recession and seriously disrupting the global financial system.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin urged Congress to take care of the issue before leaving for the August recess. After they ignored that plea, he announced last week that, “Based upon our available information, I believe that it is critical that Congress act to increase the nation’s borrowing authority by September 29, 2017.”
Difficulty: Some hoped that with Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress raising the debt ceiling would be easy. However, several Republicans can’t let go of the idea that they should use the process to extract some policy rewards, other than not causing an economic collapse.
Mnuchin has called for a “clean” debt-limit increase, but in May the House Freedom Caucus declared, “We demand that any increase of the debt ceiling be paired with policy that addresses Washington’s unsustainable spending by cutting where necessary, capping where able and working to balance in the near future.”
While Democrats previously positioned themselves as the “adults in the room,” they’ve been hinting that they might make their own demands. “I don’t have any intention of supporting lifting the debt ceiling to enable the Republicans to give another tax break to the wealthy in our country,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
September 30: Government Funding Runs Out
The Issue: If Congress does not pass a budget, the government will run out of funding. That means we’ll see another government shutdown in October (you know the drill: furloughed federal workers, ruined vacations to national parks and museums, and grandstanding from the likes of Ted Cruz).
Difficulty: Just before leaving for the August recess, the House approved a $790 billion spending package, which passed 235 to 192. But the package only consisted of four of the 12 annual government spending bills. And it includes $1.57 billion to build Trump’s border wall. Sixty votes are required to pass the measure in the Senate, and eight Democrats are not going to vote for the big, beautiful wall.
There are many, many other issues that put the fate of the budget legislation in doubt, such as the complex question of whether tax cuts must be offset by increases in revenue or spending cuts. And to top it all off, President Trump actually appears to be itching for a shutdown. Last spring former House Speaker John Boehner was reportedly called in to convince the president that keeping the government open is a good thing, but after Trump signed the spending bill he tweeted this:
September 30: Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Funding Ends
The Issue: CHIP was enacted in 1997 with bipartisan support to provide coverage for children who are low-income but don’t qualify for Medicaid. Last year more than 8.9 million children were covered through CHIP. Authorization for the bill runs out at the end of September, at least five states will be out of funding by the end of the year, and most will run out next year.
Difficulty: Making sure that millions of children don’t lose their insurance (particularly in an election year) sounds like a no-brainer, but that’s not how things work in this Congress. CHIP was on the back burner as Republicans focused on repealing Obamacare, but now there’s talk of making CHIP reauthorization a vehicle for that fight. Per Business Insider, “Republicans could try to add language to repeal elements of Obamacare. Democrats might try to boost funding to stabilize the insurance markets.”
Republican Representative Greg Walden suggested lawmakers aren’t feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to move on CHIP.
“While it needs to be reauthorized by September, virtually every state has funds — most of which don’t begin to run out at the earliest in October, some then in December, and many next year,” he said. “We’ve got a little window here, but we intend to meet our deadlines.”
September 30: National Flood Insurance Program Expires
The Issue: The National Flood Insurance Program covers about 5 million homeowners and is $25 billion in debt. If Congress does not renew the program by September 30, current policies will remain in effect, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t be able to issue new ones. This isn’t unprecedented, but it could disrupt home sales in areas prone to flooding.
Difficulty: The issue does not fall along party lines, since both Republicans and Democrats represent states with a large number of coastal properties. However, NFIP has been a thorny issue for decades. There’s disagreement over how much homeowners should have to pay, and some argue that the government shouldn’t be in the flood insurance business in the first place.
September 30: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Authorization Expires
The Issue: The House version of the legislations to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration would privatize air-traffic control. Under the proposal, which President Trump is pushing, the nation’s air-navigation system would be outsourced to a nonprofit corporation, with the FAA still providing safety oversight.
Difficulty: According to The Hill, this was seen as one of the easier ways that Congress could give President Trump a legislative win. However, House Republicans could not agree on the issue and went home for the August recess without voting on it. The Senate version of the bill would not privatize air-traffic control, so even if it passed in the House the matter would have to go to conference. Congress doesn’t have time to fight over the future of the air-travel system, so it seems likely that they’ll just pass a short-term reauthorization of the FAA.
November: Tax Reform
The Issue: President Trump has said many times that he wanted to do tax reform first, but Republicans started working on Obamacare repeal instead because House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed this would allow them to enact permanent tax cuts for the rich (unlike the Bush tax cuts, which expired in 10 years). Ryan’s convoluted scheme failed, and now the Trump administration is even more desperate to pass tax reform and move past the health-care debacle.
Difficulty: Trump is looking to pass the biggest tax cut in U.S. history and overhaul the tax code for the first time in 31 years. So far the only official tax-reform plan the White House has produced is a list of bullet points that’s actually less detailed than Trump’s tax proposal from the campaign. The GOP is looking to pass tax reform through budget reconciliation so it will only require 50 votes in the Senate. How exactly that process will work has raised a series of extremely complicated questions.
Experts say all this suggests tax reform isn’t happening this year. As New York’s Eric Levitz notes, if Trump just wants a “win” he can enact some modest reforms. But for now Congress and the White House claim they’re going to advance robust tax reform with astonishing speed. “That I think is an aggressive schedule, but that is our timetable,” said White House legislative affairs director Marc Short last week. “Hopefully we’ll have completion by mid-November.”
Representative Mark Meadows declared that the legislation must be on Trump’s desk by November 23. “If it doesn’t get there by Thanksgiving, guys, it isn’t going to happen,” he said.
December 31: The FISA Amendments Act Expires
The Issue: After tackling all of those financial matters, Congress gets to relax in December with a debate on whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the intelligence community to intercept and store international communications.
Difficulty: This is another issue where Republicans are divided. Some, like President Trump and Senator Tom Cotton, want to make the reauthorization permanent. Other privacy hawks like Senator Rand Paul are pushing for major changes. Lawfare Blog analyzed senators’ voting history on the issue and concluded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may need to rely on Democrats to pass a clean reauthorization, and “this 702 reauthorization will be as unpredictable and unlike any prior surveillance legislative debate we’ve seen in recent history.”