Congress hits the road for the summer

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They’re gone. Both the House and Senate are basically in recess until Labor Day, with only perfunctory goings on. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Bloomberg Government editorial director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: I guess it’s fair to say they’re not totally gone, Loren, but they’re kind of just doing what they need to do. And maybe there’ll be an agreement on another COVID relief. Tell us the details.

Loren Duggan: Well, the basic status right now is both chambers will have sessions every couple of days. They’re called pro-forma sessions. Very little goes on in those but for the most part, members will be gone and away from Capitol Hill. What leaders have told their members is that if we do get a deal, we’ll give you 24 hours notice, bring you back to DC, and we’ll vote on that. But with talks largely stalled or non existent with the two convention weeks coming up with the Democrats this week and the Republicans next week, it seems very unlikely that we’ll see a lot of activity on Capitol Hill until probably September at this rate.

Tom Temin: Yeah. So would they take up more debate on COVID relief of some manner at that point, or is that pretty much a dead letter?

Loren Duggan: I think it depends on what the numbers look like over the next couple of weeks, both in terms of what happens with case counts, and what happens with the economy as another set of numbers will eventually keep coming through. Also, you know, just developments on the ground may change that. But for right now, they were able to walk away from the talks because of the deadlock that they have. Some people have called it a trillion dollar ditch when it comes to the amount of state and local aid that Democrats want that Republicans haven’t been on or the liability provisions. So with that, with a talk seemingly not moving anywhere, there may not be any momentum for the time being until the September business kicks off in earnest with the senate coming back on September 8, and right now, the house not coming back till September 14. So we could have a several weeks here before we see more action.

And of course, then they won’t get back until in full until just days almost before the end of the federal fiscal year.

Absolutely. And we’ve got several deadlines coming up then. The big one of course that happens every year is the expiration of federal funding, there needs to be something put in place by October 1 to prevent a government shutdown. We should see talks begin in earnest. Maybe even before they get back on Labor Day about what to do in a continuing resolution and what anomalies the administration may need, what tweaks to funding levels either up or down to reflect realities on the ground. So that deadline will force some sort of legislation now that could become a vehicle for something like additional stimulus funds for the coronavirus or it also could become a vehicle for another major expiration coming September 30. Highway and transit funding that is renewed on a multi year basis, but that deadline is also the September 30. And there’s no path and insight here for some sort of big agreement on that legislation either.

Tom Temin: And talk a little bit more about the postal service because that’s been a big bugaboo between Republicans and Democrats in the White House and so forth. And it’s partly the ongoing systemic problems of the Postal Service and its finances, but then there’s also now mixed in this idea of the voting by mail, which could occur on a mass scale in the fall.

Loren Duggan: Right. The Postal Service has been a stimulus issue already, with Democrats asking for more money for it early on. It’s now wrapped up in the election, as you mentioned, with Democrats wanting $25 billion for the postal service itself plus $3.6 billion to help election systems do increased voting by mail for the fall election. Now, that’s something that the President has been very critical of says that he’s okay with traditional absentee voting but doesn’t want universal voting by mail. And there’s been a lot of pushback for that. So what we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks are some structural and organizational changes to the postal service. And that’s getting some pushback from members of Congress, primarily oversight and reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, who has an interesting role in this because her own election, primary election was tied up for multiple weeks as the vote count took a long time in her new New York, New York area district. So she’s got that personal experience with it that the President likes to mention. But she’s also the chairperson of the committee that oversees the Postal Service. There’s a similar Senate bill from Gary Peters, who’s the top democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. And basically what their legislation would say is for the rest of this COVID pandemic, and at least until January 1 2021, don’t make these kind of structural changes. Don’t curtail, over time don’t make any sort of major change, keep the post office as it is. And that’s because of the voting because of just disruption to the to the mail service. And I know personally on my condo listserv people seem to be reporting that some of their packages are delayed and even anecdotally, you hear things so I think the postal debate is something that will be rejoined whenever they get back to stimulus talks, and possibly in appropriations because in the past, Congress has used appropriations bills to prevent changes in service like they mandate six day a week mail they mandate that rural post offices not be closed so we could see a CR, continuing resolution be tied to something like that. And we’ll have to see how those dynamics shape out.

Tom Temin: I ordered dumbbells from Walmart back in May, and they still haven’t been delivered. Maybe they’re too heavy for the postal service to be able to take to the front door. And it’s interesting what you say about Carolyn Maloney’s election, because if you read the details of that, it’s really a mess in the way the mail was handled, and bundles of ballots get have to be hand stamped. And then new ones turn up and the old ones disappear. And it’s kind of a side from the politics that just didn’t work as a mail in situation. We glossed over the budget talks for the end of the year. Did the House finish the 10th 11th and 12th bills? 11th and 12th, or are they done? And then there’s nothing finished in the Senate, correct?

Loren Duggan: So the House got all 12 through committee, and they passed two packages that together covered 10 of the 12 bills. So the only ones that they didn’t act on yet are the legislative branch bill which ones congressional operations and the one for the homeland six department that is fraught because of the Immigration and Border wall debates. And it’s no surprise that that one was left to the side for right now. The Senate has yet to mark up any of its bills and put them through committee, in part because they couldn’t come to an agreement on how to sidestep controversial amendments. So going into September that the house has 10 done, the Senate doesn’t have any yet. But you know, the continuing resolution talks probably happened in their own space. And then behind the scenes, there could be some discussion between the House and Senate counterparts. The big sticking point between the House and the Senate, maybe all the additional funding that the house is seeking related to coronavirus, which goes over and above the two year spending agreement they have plus some of the writers that they put in there to curtail Trump administration activities that Democrats disagree with. So it’ll be interesting to see if they can come to agreement on that. As well as things like the defense authorization bill when I come back in September where there’s probably fewer disagreements there. Top line agreement at the very least, but still some controversial provisions there. So a lot on the to do list not a lot of time and obviously a lot of external pressures because as we keep hearing from public health experts, the disease isn’t going to go away, and it will still be a dynamic to wrestle with.

Tom Temin: Yes. And the other disease that’s not going away is the nasty politics. And with, as you mentioned, the conventions happening or the virtual conventions won’t be quite the party affairs that we’ve seen so many decades, with people with funny hats on and standing around with signs and crowded convention centers. But it will have the effect I think, of maybe hardening the positions because the party platforms will be on display and broadcast. And so that could maybe make it a little bit more difficult to have any kind of agreement during or after.

Loren Duggan:  Election year dynamics are tough like that. And that happens almost every four years when there’s a presidential race and Congress actually backs out of, you know, being in session over October during an election year in part because of They want to go home and campaign but also because it’s just so much harder to get things done. Things do feel really polarized right now, I think that’s fair to say. And with the conventions happening, and the speechifying is mainly what we’ll see more of a TV show than an actual convention that convenes people from around the country. That  will certainly be dominating the debate over the next couple of weeks. And we’ll see how that redounds on the debates going on later this year, then what happens after the election because if a lot of these things get kicked till after the election, we might have a very interesting lame duck session where they try to wrap up as much as they can before the new year. So you know that the election has a lot of effects not just before, but after it as well, because the current members still have some work to do before the new Congress ever gets seated next year or the new president gets sworn in.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is editorial director of Bloomberg Government. Thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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