The conventional wisdom is that the 114th Congress will feature mostly angry white men in suits yelling about something or other, without the normal output from a legislative branch, like “legislation.” The passage of the CRomnibus should put that theory to rest. Republicans were able to slide dozens of policy riders into a must-pass bill, with Democrats and the White House agreeing to the changes amid the risk of a government shutdown. GOP legislators are salivating at the prospect of running this movie over and over again in the final two years of the Obama presidency.
Fortunately for the Republicans, they will have quite a few opportunities to test this model, in their first year of total congressional control since 2006. The 2015 calendar is littered with a series of critical deadlines, which Republicans will surely try to exploit. You can pretty much throw out the rest of the year and just tune in to Congress around these deadline dates, most likely the only times when anything of import will actually happen. Here’s your congressional calendar for the next year:
Monday: Because of some unfinished business from the lame duck session, one government program will definitely await Congress’ action as members return to work. The Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, or TRIA, ends Dec. 31. As a result, insurance companies will not have to issue property & casualty insurance that covers a terrorist attack, in exchange for a government backstop against all terrorism claims above a certain dollar amount. Here’s more detail about the program.
Large developers have, perhaps unjustifiably, freaked out, claiming that the Super Bowl might need to be canceled as a result of the expiration (it won’t). But they, along with the powerful insurance industry, will clamor for the new Congress to pass a retroactive extension. Republicans already want to add provisions chipping away at Dodd-Frank’s treatment of derivative end users, freeing them from having to post collateral on trades. While the president and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have spoken in opposition to this inclusion, it’s unlikely they will resist signing the extension over it.
Feb. 28: The CRomnibus took its name from its combination of budget bills. It was mostly a conglomeration, or omnibus, of the year’s spending measures. But it left out the funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, instead making that a continuing resolution at current program levels until Feb. 28.
The ostensible reason for this was to pressure President Obama for his executive order protecting 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. But since that order is self-funded through fee collections, Congress can’t really do much to stop implementation. However, they can try to make demands in exchange for full funding for DHS. Some presume that Republicans favor funding for the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement more than Democrats, and therefore they would not threaten the funding. But considering how quickly the White House folded on the CRomnibus, all bets are off.
March 28: The “doc fix,” which prevents Medicare doctors from a 24 percent reduction to their reimbursement rates, expires on this date. Lawmakers in both parties consider Medicare’s “sustainable growth rate” a flaw in the Medicare payment model, and want to permanently patch it. So far, they have never gotten around to it, perhaps because of the cost; instead, they’ve temporarily granted short-term fixes 15 separate times.
But because this deals with healthcare, you could easily see Republicans attempt to tie the doc fix to repeal of some or all of Obamacare. The CRomnibus actually included a couple of tweaks to Obamacare, so this isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
May 31: Federal participation in the highway trust fund expires at the end of May, freezing $50 billion in funds for construction projects across the country. Roughly 700,000 jobs would be at risk if the trust fund, tied to the federal gas tax, expires.
Republican leaders have talked about a long-term surface transportation bill that would extend the trust fund, but the combination of infrastructure and energy taxes opens up plenty of opportunities for riders, whether around the Keystone XL pipeline, or the long-rumored tax amnesty for companies holding assets abroad, in exchange for infrastructure spending. The president even alluded to the latter in his year-end press conference, so that’s a possibility.
June 30: Authorization for the Export-Import Bank, an obscure financing agency for overseas trade projects involving U.S. corporations, runs out in June. Opposition to Ex-Im used to be a liberal rite of passage, but fiscal conservatives have most recently led the charge against it, while President Obama and most Democrats strongly support it (a far cry from Obama’s previous invocations of Ex-Im as “corporate welfare”). If Republicans do not send up an extension, they may be able to bargain for a few goodies in exchange for passage; they already gave Ex-Im the renewed ability to finance coal plants in the CRomnibus.
Mid-August (approximately): This is one of the two biggest legislative speed bumps in the new year. On March 16, the debt limit, which was suspended for two years, gets reinstated. It’s unclear exactly when the government would run up against the limits of its borrowing capacity, but the best guess is sometime in August.
Republicans have a lot of experience with trying to wrangle concessions out of a debt limit increase. In 2011 they succeeded with $2 trillion in budget cuts; in 2013 they went more quietly, without much to show for it. 2015 gives them new leverage from larger congressional majorities, and they are almost certain to try to use it.
Sept. 30: A couple of key deadlines on this date: first, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP, expires. It would border on madness for Republicans to hold up healthcare for kids over some unrelated policy matter, but considering how healthcare for poor Medicaid recipients has been held up in over 20 red states for years, I don’t think we can put it past them.
More important, this is the last day of the fiscal year 2015 budget, meaning that the 2016 version is due. We saw what the GOP was able to wring out of the CRomnibus to avoid a government shutdown. The stakes are actually higher next year: the Ryan-Murray budget agreement that rolled back a portion of sequestration only covered the 2014 and 2015 budget. So sequestration will return in full in the 2016 budget unless a deal gets made. And now that deal will have to be brokered between Republicans in the House and Senate and the Obama administration. Along with the debt limit, there’s no greater threat that a government shutdown to use in a game of chicken to secure long-sought policy changes.
Dec. 31: This is more of a perennial deadline. In this year’s lame duck session, the “tax extenders,” a collection of 55 tax breaks (mostly for corporations, with a few notable ones for individuals), got waved through for another year. They actually expire tomorrow, but Dec. 31 of next year would be the last day, theoretically, to retroactively extend them and have them count on 2015 taxes.
This bill gets passed virtually every year, as corporations desire it and politicians use it as a way to raise money (as in, “give me a contribution and I’ll make sure your tax break gets extended”). But there’s long-simmering talk of corporate tax reform in the air, and the tax extenders could therefore become a political football.