Congress returns in full, as the clock begins to run out once again

The House and Senate are both in session this week. But the House is only around for this week and next, before taking another two-week recess. That schedule br...

The House and Senate are both in session this week. But the House is only around for this week and next, before taking another two-week recess. That schedule brings Congress right up to the next federal-funding deadline. If that feels unpleasantly familiar, it does to Members of Congress, as well. For the latest, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Mitchell Miller It seems like we’re reliving a bad television episode over and over again. Every few months we seem to be saying, here’s the next deadline. And then sure enough, here another deadline comes. So there is a lot of concern right now, even though they haven’t really done much. And that is part of the concern that they haven’t really moved much at all on these 12 appropriations bills that they’ve been talking about, of course, all through last year passed, blowing the Oct. 1 deadline. And now here we are heading our way to the March 1 deadline. One of the people that I talked to about this was Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va). He is one of the lawmakers that worries that they’re going to end up basically where they were at the last deadline. Can they really get these 12 appropriations bills passed at a time when the House margin is even thinner than it was under House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)? Here’s what some of the things that he said to me.

Tim Kaine Speaker [Mike] Johnson (R-La.) definitely doesn’t want to shut the government down. That’s a positive, but it is a lot of work to get done. We have to do the supplemental, and we really need to do that before the Senate leaves for recess. And we need to get the appropriations bill done by early March. I believe we will. But your question was, do you have any concerns about it? And the answer is yes. I have concerns.

Mitchell Miller So yes, he is concerned. Now, Senator Kaine says he’s become smart enough not to try to predict what the House will do. But there is clearly a lot of worry on the Senate side. What the House will do. House Speaker Johnson likes to cite that they have close to 80% of the bills done. But what he does not mention when he cites what’s already been done, is the fact that there were many bills in the past year that the House was unable to even get past the procedural step of the rule to get it to the floor. So it’s really hard to see exactly what has changed. We’ll have to see if the conservatives back off a little bit on him, or whether they intensify and put more pressure on this speaker who’s really still feeling his way around this appropriations process.

Tom Temin Yeah. You wonder if they understand how normal people look at all this and what the reaction is from the outside. All right, given everything that’s going on with Ukraine, with the Israel situation, and of course, the whole debate on the border crisis. Is the budget even in their minds as they return this week?

Mitchell Miller Well that’s a really good question. I think it’s on the back burner. Oddly enough, even though this deadline is looming within just a little over a month. The supplemental, the huge foreign aid package, along with this border deal that they’ve been trying to reach, has really sucked all the oxygen out of the U.S. Senate right now. And even though there is work behind the scenes in connection with the appropriations bills, unfortunately, for a lot of people who want to see more progress on the budget, this is going to take some time, and I think it’s going to eat up a lot more time this week, especially because we had this mini drama last week where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated at one point that they might have to separate the deal on the border with Ukraine. And he has been a big supporter, as you know, of Ukraine funding. But then he kind of walked it back the next day and said he’s still hoping for a deal. So they’re still trying to grind out these negotiations on the border deal and still try to secure this huge over $100 billion foreign aid package, including the money for Israel in Ukraine. And I think that’s going to dominate this week. As in the background, we try to get more progress on these appropriations bills.

Tom Temin Yeah. And it’s a weird effect that the Trump trials and the Trump emergence from New Hampshire and Iowa, seems to have gravitational effect on Congress, which is a little weird because he’s not in office. And they still are.

Mitchell Miller It’s really amazing when you think of the fact that he is not in elected office. He hasn’t even really been made the nominee of the Republican Party, although it’s certainly going that way. But he has essentially frozen the House on this issue. The House Republicans have basically indicated that no matter what deal comes out, they are likely to reject it. And we still don’t even know the full details of what’s going to come out of this deal. Now, the Senate supporters of the agreement hope that it’ll come out this week and that they will eventually get a vote on it and that they can somehow put some pressure on the House by showing that it’s a real bipartisan deal and that there are parts of the agreement that everybody can go for. But, former President Trump (R-N.Y.) has indicated he’s not going for any kind of deal. He just thinks that it’s going to be a victory for President Biden. So it’s really hard to see that this would even get beyond the Senate, even if it gets that far.

Tom Temin Crazy. We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller. He’s Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And switching gears here for a moment. There is effort from some members on the Hill to try to get more federal employees back in their offices more frequently.

Mitchell Miller And one of those people is Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA.) She has been very active in trying to get federal employees back into their offices over the last several months, and really ever since the pandemic started to wind down. Her latest tactic is essentially to try to shame the agency heads of various federal agencies. This past week, she shouted out about a variety of things, including the fact that, of course, the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, was out. He was sick for several days before the president knew about it. She basically says there needs to be more accountability on the part of agency heads. She wants every agency head’s schedule posted. So, in her words, that taxpayers know who is showing up for work. Another example she points to is the head of GSA, who spent a large time away from Washington in Missouri. Basically, she wants to get all of these agency heads on the same page. And then at the lower level, is still putting a lot of pressure on these federal departments to try to get more and more people back. As we’ve talked about, the White House has tried to make a push to get people back as well, but it still hasn’t moved as quickly as a lot of the advocates, at least on Capitol Hill, had hoped for.

Tom Temin And it’s interesting because the Office of Management and Budget, that is the White House, have issued reports on how effective teleworking is and how the level of teleworking has gone down slightly in ’23 versus ’22. So I think there’s kind of two minds there. One, from a management point of view, I think they’d like people back. But on the other hand, the unions are pushing back and they have support from the unions otherwise politically. So it’s a little bit of a dilemma, I think.

Mitchell Miller Yeah, I think it’s almost kind of turned upside down. Because, you well know, all of these battles over the years of trying to get agencies to be more active with telework. Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) has been one of those who’s been very active in trying to push agencies to make sure that people could work for home. And this was just a huge issue over the last several years. And then the pandemic now coming out of it has really changed things. As you point out. It’s very interesting how everything is kind of flipped around.

Tom Temin And a final issue coming up this week is the Senate Finance Committee is kind of getting deep into the technology knickers of the IRS.

Mitchell Miller That is for sure. We’re talking now about IRS bar codes, and it sounds like it’s something real simple. Hey, I go to the grocery store. It happens all the time, but there are no bar codes in connection with IRS filings. And when you think of the incredible amount of paperwork and electronic financial records that go through the IRS, it is pretty amazing that there isn’t a more efficient way to get things through. So there is bipartisan legislation coming through the Senate Finance Committee that would essentially require barcodes on everything. This has been introduced by senators Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) And what they really want to do is get barcodes on everything so that this huge amount of paperwork because, as you know, the IRS still deals with a lot of paper, would at least allow them to move things through more quickly. Because as we’ve talked about over the years, whether it’s bad signatures or things on paperwork that just can’t be figured out, there’s a lot of plugs in the whole system that hold things up. Now, on the brighter side, the IRS has been making a lot of progress related to that backlog that they had during the pandemic. But this is just another example of lawmakers trying to nudge the IRS along, of course, also with that big amount of billions of dollars that was approved recently so that the IRS can modernize a lot of its IT equipment.

Tom Temin Yeah, I think a lot of their ability to get those backlogs done is brute force. That is just hiring bodies to process it by hand.

Mitchell Miller Right. There’s just really not enough people right now, and the IRS has acknowledged that. And then when you combine that with the technological issues, it just still creates a lot of problems. Now there has been, again, a lot of progress in the last year or so. Certainly this is something that we’re all thinking about as the taxes come through in the next coming months.


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