Yes, you’ve seen this before. But have you seen it happen during a global pandemic, an economic crisis and a presidential election — when “normal” activities, from sending your children to school to casting a ballot this November — all seem to hang in some hazy balance?
To put some of this in perspective, here’s a list of all the priorities Congress must tackle in the coming weeks, unless, of course, it simply chooses to ignore them.
Priority 1: Another coronavirus relief package. This comes in at the top of the list, namely because of the dozens of priorities that members want to see attached to the legislation.
Democrats and Republicans are still miles apart on the basic structure of a bill, failing to agree on unemployment and small business benefits, as well as funding for state and local governments.
But for federal employees, there are other priorities that are equally, if not more, important.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bought itself more time at the end of July to stave off employee furloughs until Aug. 30. The agency said its financial situation had improved, but it still needed an emergency injection of $1.2 billion in funding to begin and maintain operations at the upcoming start of the new fiscal year.
Senate Republicans had included the $1.2 billion in USCIS funding, as well as a proposal that would allow the agency to eventually pay the money back, in its version of a fourth coronavirus legislative package.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many at USCIS, is not thrilled.
“We are disappointed that the Senate has decided to break for recess without addressing the impending crisis that will devastate 13,400 hard-working USCIS employees, harm American families and effectively shut down our legal immigration system,” AFGE’s USCIS Council said Friday in a statement. “While the senators pat themselves on the back, thousands of their constituents don’t know if they’re going to have a paycheck in two weeks.”
The union said back in July it was optimistic Congress understood the impact furloughs would have on USCIS operations and its employees. Lawmakers should come through, the union said.
Now, it seems some of that optimism is gone.
“The clock is running out to save USCIS, and it seems like the Senate has thrown away whatever time was left at the expense of our economy, our immigration system and their constituents,” the union said.
Beyond USCIS, members of Congress were also eyeing critical funding for the Postal Service and technology modernization dollars for other agencies as priorities they want to see in the next coronavirus relief package.
Priority 2: Government funding. Enough said, right?
Current government funding expires on Sept. 30. Both the House and Senate aren’t expected to return to Washington until Sept. 8, unless, of course, congressional leaders strike a deal on coronavirus relief with the Trump administration.
On one hand, it may seem like the end-of-the-fiscal-year scramble seems entirely routine during a year that has been anything but normal.
But in 2020, even the usual last-minute dash to fund the government isn’t so normal, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic.
The House has passed 11 out of 12 appropriations bills for 2021. The Senate hasn’t touched a single one of them. Senate appropriators haven’t even passed a single bill out of committee.
With that in mind, a continuing resolution is the best-case scenario. Lawmakers will have to find a way to buy themselves some time and pass a
Shutting down the government and furloughing hundreds of thousands of federal employees without pay during a pandemic and economic crisis would be devastating.
Forcing researchers at the National Institutes of Health, nurses at the Department of Veterans Affairs and oh yeah, members of the military to work without pay during this pandemic would be equally dreadful.
If there’s any consolation, members of Congress must know the optics of that scenario would be terrible, and many of them are up for reelection in November.
Priority 3: The annual defense authorization bill.
Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year for nearly six decades. Failing to do so this year would be tough, if not par for the course in 2020.
To its credit, Congress is further along on this one. Both the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the 2021 NDAA, leaving it up to both sides to settle their differences and pass a compromise into law. A 3.1% military pay raise is on the line.
The House version includes corrections to the paid parental leave program and new anti-discrimination safeguards for federal employees. Both versions are packed with other priorities.
In any other year, the NDAA is considered must-pass legislation.