While there’s much speculation about how Republicans will run Capitol Hill in the next Congress, the lame-duck one that returns to Washington today must tackle big challenges of its own. With a continuing resolution set to expire in mid-December, agency budgets hang in the balance. So does emergency funding to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Congress also will take up the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill, widely considered to be “must pass” legislation and a key vehicle for other measures that would not become law on their own. Add in a pledge by the White House to act on immigration reform if Congress will not, and it makes for a busy few weeks. Then before you know it, lawmakers will leave again for the winter holidays, closing the book on the 113th session.
Here are a few things federal employees should watch for in the final weeks of this Congress:
Republican leaders have made it clear to their rank-and-file that they do not want another government shutdown after the continuing resolution expires at midnight on Dec. 12. But the rest of the fiscal 2015 budget picture is murky.
Appropriations leaders Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky) have both pitched support for a comprehensive funding measure that would incorporate the dozen appropriations bills that their committees have worked on. Seven of those bills have passed the House. None have passed the Senate. Stan Collender, executive vice president of Qorvis MSL Group and a longtime budget watcher, gives a so-called “omnibus” bill a 25 percent chance of getting through Congress in the next few weeks.
“It’s not just the dollars,” he said. “Does Congress even have time to do an omnibus?”
Democrats would support an omnibus or a long-term continuing resolution, he said, but Republicans are of two minds, with some preferring a short-term measure so they can draft spending bills anew early next year. On the other hand, that would leave GOP members less time in the spring to focus on issues nearer and dearer to the party base, such as repealing portions of the Affordable Care Act, blocking certain environmental regulations and rolling back some taxes.
After repeated continuing resolutions, federal employees are accustomed to the pace and uncertainty. But Greg Stanford, legislative director of the Federal Managers Association, plans to spend much of the coming weeks asking lawmakers to break that cycle. He’ll also be watching for measures that could prevent federal employees from receiving the 1 percent pay raise that President Barack Obama has proposed.
“We’d love for the pay raise to be much higher,” Stanford said. But considering the tenor on Capitol Hill, “we’ve been grateful that, so far, the appropriations bills that have passed the House have stayed silent on pay.”
Defense Authorization Act: a “must-pass” bill with hundreds of amendments
If Congress passes one piece of legislation a year, it’s the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s the way it’s been for more than 50 years. Armed Services Committee chairmen Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif), both retiring after this session, are intent on making this year no different. They are in “preconference mode” now, according to Senate committee staffer Jay Maroney.
The Defense Department has had trouble convincing lawmakers in either chamber to trim military benefits and weapons systems, which Pentagon officials say are essential to freeing up money for military readiness in an era of scarce resources. President Obama has threatened to veto the House version of the bill, which is more expensive at a total cost of $601 billion.
Because it’s likely to become law, the authorization measure is a prime target for lawmakers looking to pass other legislation. That might be how FITARA, a bipartisan bill to overhaul federal technology management, could become law.
Prospects look good for another add-on, a five-year extension of a program that lets some federal retirees return to work part time while receiving full retirement benefits. Without the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the authority would expire next year. Agencies in need of experienced specialists would have to seek waivers from the Office of Personnel Management in what, critics say, is a burdensome process.
Will there be time for anything else? Maybe not, and that’s good for feds
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that, in the waning days of Democratic control, the Senate will try to confirm as many Obama nominees as possible. Some 150 candidates are waiting for their verdicts.
That leaves little time for other measures. That’s a good thing, according to Jenny Mattingley, a lobbyist for the Senior Executives Association.
“In the past, anti-fed legislation has gone through when the budget battles have dragged on into the last week of December,” she said.
The association is on high alert for bans on SES performance awards and federal travel. Both have been proposed in various appropriations bills and could be included in omnibus spending legislation or the defense authorization act, she said.
But federal employees can breathe easy — for now — about other measures to restrict their benefits and take away their job security. Republicans have indicated that they would take another stab at trimming federal pensions, but not until next year.