What’s next for Congress now that they’ve kicked the budget stone down the road again

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Like soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe, Congress is good at kicking things. Megan scores goals, though; Congress kicks procrastination cans down the road. Now the continuing resolution for funding the government runs until February — February 18, to be exact. So you can reset the countdown clock. For what Congress will be dealing with next, The Federal Drive with Tom Temin. spoke to WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Mitchell, let’s start with the federal workforce. That has been the subject of a lot of interest by Northern Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly.

Mitchell Miller: That’s right, Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly, again, making a lot of pushes for reforms within the workforce, whether it’s telework or now what he’s really looking at is the new generation of federal workers. As you well know, there has been an aging process with baby boomers and a lot of federal workers leaving the federal workforce. So he has proposed this new legislation — the longer name of it is the Building the Next Generation of Federal Employees Act, or as he likes to call it, the Next Gen Feds Act. And this would do a variety of things. We’ll get to telework in a second. But one thing it would do in terms of trying to recruit younger people into government is address this issue of the aging workforce by creating a new internship program. And it’s much more complicated than just hiring a few more interns. They would actually create a fellowship center within the Office of Personnel Management that would actually centralize all of these internship programs, of which there are myriad throughout the federal government. And then they would get guidance on how this center could actually attract and bring in potential interns, hire more interns, get more people into the federal government. One statistic that Federal News Network has pointed out to is that federal agencies at one point just only about a decade ago had 35,000 interns that just dropped in the last couple of years. Now it’s down to only about 4000. So a huge drop in the number of young people that were actually getting internship experience in the federal government.

Tom Temin: Is there bipartisan support for this bill, do you sense?

Mitchell Miller: I do sense that there is some bipartisan support on this. On another issue that Jerry Connolly has always pushed, as we’ve talked about, is telework. There is less bipartisan support there. There is bipartisan support that people do feel that they do need to get new blood, basically, into the federal government, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans are pretty supportive of that. On the telework issue, Connolly is again pushing agencies, making sure that they do not prohibit telework within their agencies and try to do more to get people working from home. There is some Republican skepticism still, among some lawmakers at any rate, that there may not be as much efficiency and productivity when people are not working actually in the office. And there’s been a push on the other side of the aisle to try to get people more back into the offices. So that’s an interesting dynamic as well. And then one last thing that Connolly is addressing is OPM. He is basically making a push that it be nonpartisan. This is in reaction to several things that happened during the Trump administration.

Tom Temin: Well, I guess Jerry Connolly’s a good person to call for this. He’s got a lot of federal employees in his district, although, God bless him, he’s no youngster. And so it must look odd to some of the young people seeing Look who’s wanting us to come into government.

Mitchell Miller: Right. Well, that’s been an issue, actually, with the Democratic Party as a whole. If you look at the Democratic leadership, Steny Hoyer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a lot of the generational shift is about to happen here, at least in Congress and likely in federal government agencies.

Tom Temin: Alright. And then, of course, as we said at the outset, the government shutdown was averted with a vote late on Thursday. So there’s a couple of more months to go now. But this had to do with the vaccine mandate. It was kind of tied in with the concessions that were made to get that vote through some of the Republicans. So what can we see ahead there?

Mitchell Miller: Well, interestingly enough, while that came up and it was averted, basically the Democrats said they would allow an amendment by Utah Senator Mike Lee to put this on the floor and say, we want to get rid of this federal mandate and take away the funding for it. It fell short, in part, because two Republicans were actually not here in Washington. And so now it’s actually going to be brought up separately this week. The legislation is actually sponsored by Indiana Senator Mike Braun. He believes that he actually has enough votes to get it passed in the Senate. That’s because the often wild card West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has indicated he would possibly support this legislation, which would basically take away the federal mandate for companies that have 100 or more employees. We’ll see how that plays out in the Senate. I don’t think there’s enough support in the House, which would be required to pass it as well. And then also there is the potential threat of the veto pen from President Biden, who no doubt would oppose this.

Tom Temin: Got it. We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And this discussion kind of points to the larger issue, which is the budget process that is just tied into so many non-budget related items year after year, whatever the topical issue of the year is. And so to use Washington parlance, it seems broken. You spoke at length with Senator Van Hollen. And what did he say about it?

Mitchell Miller: Right, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, as you know, is a member of the Budget Committee. He is well steeped in these budgetary matters. And he really does feel that this is broken. You know, you have to go back to 1996 was the last time that Congress actually got everything passed on time. So this is why we always come up, as you know, against this wall every December or late November, where there’s yet another threat of a shutdown. And for a while, it did look last week like there might be a shutdown, at least for a few days. Van Hollen says it’s really difficult to find any kind of solution to this, because members of both parties have been at fault at times. He says it’s really just a matter of political will. And there is just not the political will right now to get this done. Earlier, I’ve talked to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who has long advocated that he thinks the calendar should just be shifted. And we should get away from this point where the fiscal year actually starts in October and actually move it to the traditional calendar and have it start in January. And he believes that would get us away from this constant push toward the holidays, where we’re always up against it, like a kid who’s trying to get their homework done at the end of the semester.

Tom Temin: Well, he probably forgets it at one time — the federal fiscal year started July 1, to avert all of these issues. They moved it to October 1, maybe they’ll come around to July 1 again.

Mitchell Miller: That would be interesting. And it seems like no matter how they shift the calendar, you’re always going to have them pushing up against these deadlines.

Tom Temin: And the Senate has the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act. And that’s starting to feel a little anxious, too, because they have gotten that done by the end of the calendar year, year after year.

Mitchell Miller: Right. I mean, as many lawmakers like to proudly point out on the Senate side, the NDAA has been passed essentially on time for 60 years in a row, which is virtually unheard of here in Congress, as you know. And there’s been some trouble with it, though. There’s been a lot of pushback from Republicans with the Senate leadership on getting amendments. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he’s provided plenty of chances for amendments. And he points out that actually there have been fewer amendments in past years when Republicans were in power than during the Democratic tenure. They seem to have made some progress at the end of last week, so that we might get the gears moving again on the NDAA. And then the other issue is the debt ceiling, which of course is looming. Treasury Secretary Yellen has indicated mid December roughly is a time that it really has to get done. They’re still trying to figure out how they’re going to do that. And there has been discussion actually of folding the debt ceiling issue into the NDAA. Some Democrats are supportive of this. Republicans seem to oppose it. So we’ll have to see exactly how that plays out. That’s going to be another huge issue, of course, in the coming weeks.

Tom Temin: That does seem like a lot of conglomeration of issues to put the NDAA and the debt ceiling together. They could throw in the budget and just call every year the bill, just have one big bill for everything.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly, as if things aren’t complicated enough right now. Right.

Tom Temin: Right. And then what about the status of the BBB — the Build Back Better? I mean, that has been tossing around now. It’s starting to get a little wrinkled hanging on the vine there.

Mitchell Miller: Right. You know, it’s funny, because that had so much attention for so many weeks along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And then when that was passed, everybody started to move on to, well, is the social spending bill, what’s going to happen with the President’s biggest part of his domestic agenda? That has actually been kind of pushed aside by these other issues we have mentioned, but as I talked to Senator Van Hollen, he still believes that Democrats really need to push hard on that in the coming weeks. Senate Majority Leader Schumer has set a very ambitious calendar scheduled for that. He would actually like to get some real major progress on that, really within the next two weeks. That seems pretty ambitious to a lot of staffers, but he would like to get some type of vote on it before Christmas. Again, this really seems like it’s going to be a difficult one to have happen, especially when you have West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, again, indicating that he is in no rush to get this push through by the holiday. So we’ll have to see what happens with that over the next few weeks.

Tom Temin: And speaking of the holiday, just from a social standpoint in Capitol Hill, do they wander in and out of one another’s office with eggnog, Republicans and Democrats? Or is it pretty much, you know, the divide continues despite the season of peace and joy?

Mitchell Miller: Well, you know, there is a relative peace, if you will, over time. But I talked again with Senator Van Hollen about this, in the fact that we have January 6 coming up only about a month away. There is really a toxic atmosphere among many lawmakers between both parties as a result of what happened on January 6. They’re still difficulty in getting a lot of these relationships, any kind of concomitance between the two parties. Now, obviously on the Senate side, there’s a little more collegiality than in the house. But it really has made a difference here in the Capitol. A lot of those old traditions that you talk about have kind of gone to the wayside. Many of the people in the parties, you know, the Democrats and the Republicans, they kind of just huddle on their own. Not to say that there’s not some bipartisan crossover here and there, but it’s certainly a lot less than it used to be during the holidays here.

Tom Temin: And if you show up to one of those parties, don’t wear your fur hat with horns.

Mitchell Miller: Don’t do that.

Tom Temin: Alright, Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

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