Congress has lengthy year-end to-do list.

December 03, 2013

The House returned to Washington, DC this week to a crowded agenda that includes a number of high-priority legislative items that it must act on by the end of 2013. With the Senate not resuming until next week, there is little time to move through all of these issues—which include sequestration, funding for fiscal year (FY) 2014, and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA)—before the end of the year. 

The agreement Congress struck in October to reopen the federal government included three key elements: (1) a continuing resolution that funds regular government operations through January 15, 2014 at the current sequester levels of $986 billion; (2) an extension of the debt ceiling until February 7, 2014; and (3) an agreement to convene a conference committee on the budget resolution that is required to come up with a long-term spending plan by December 13, 2013. Realistically, this deal simply sets a timeline for the next stage of the same debt and deficit debate Congress has been having, now with a set of key mile-markers: December 13, January 15 and February 7.  

Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) have expressed optimism about reaching a small-scale budget agreement that could alter spending levels for the year and provide some short-term (1-2 year) relief from sequestration, but the conference committee has yet to settle on a final agreement that could garner support in both chambers. 

At the same time, there are a number of pieces of legislation that either have expired or will expire before the end of the year to which Congress must attend. Some of those could get swept up into a larger budget deal, while others will have to be dealt with separately. 

  • The Farm Bill: The Farm Bill, which authorizes a number of agriculture and rural support programs as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) expired on September 30. The Farm Bill also authorizes the SNAP Employment & Training program (SNAP E&T), which supports a range of job search, job training, and related services for low-income SNAP recipients. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bipartisan Farm Bill. Rather than passing a single piece of legislation, the House passed two bills that pulled apart the farm and nutrition titles. Both House bills were approved mostly along party lines. Despite each chamber passing Farm Bill legislation, Congress failed to reauthorize the program before it expired in September—largely a result of a major disagreement between the House and Senate over the level of cuts that should be made to the SNAP program. Following the end of the government shutdown, the House and Senate convened a conference committee to resolve the sizeable differences between the bills. So far, the conference committee has held one public meeting. The short-term spending bill that is currently funding the government until January 15, 2014 effectively extended Farm Bill programs by funding them; however, Congress still must pass long-term SNAP legislation. 
  • Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA): TAA, which provides assistance to workers who have lost their jobs as a result of foreign trade, will expire at the end of this year. In July, Senators Baucus (D-MT) and Collins (R-ME) introduced legislation to extend TAA through 2020. The Obama Administration, in its last two budget proposals, has offered a Universal Displaced Worker Program, which would consolidate resources currently available under the WIA Dislocated Worker program and the TAA for Workers program into a single fund to support services for workers who have recently lost or are about to lose their jobs. Congress has yet to act on the Administration’s proposal. It is more likely that Congress will pass a short-term extension of TAA by the end of the year, allowing for additional time to debate on the future of the program.
  • Unemployment Insurance: Authorization for the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program – which ensures workers and their families have the financial assistance they need during periods of unemployment – is set to expire on December 29. EUC benefits were extended through 2013 as a part of the January fiscal cliff agreement. It’s likely that another extension would be attached to a larger legislative vehicle, such as a budget agreement, if one should occur. 
  • Funding for Fiscal Year 2014: Congress must also address funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2014. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been vocal about the need for Congress to pass all 12 appropriations bills, rather than allowing government funding to operate on auto-pilot, allowing harmful sequestration cuts bluntly applied across all programs. Since May, both the House and Senate appropriations committees have been busy crafting individual appropriations bills. However, in several instances, the differences between the two versions are quite significant and it is difficult to see how those differences can be resolved. If Congress is not able to pass all 12 appropriations bills by January 15—which seems very likely—then it can either choose to enact another short-term spending bill, or set specific spending levels for some programs while allowing others to continue on auto-pilot. Complicating matters, the next round of sequestration cuts are set to hit in January. Unless the budget conferees are able to unwind sequestration for FY 2014, these cuts will inflict additional significant damage on federally-funded programs. 
  • WIA Reauthorization: On November 21, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) took the first step to bring Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization to the Senate floor, filing a motion to proceed on the bill. Even though the motion to proceed has been filed, WIA will not be considered on the floor before the end of the year. If WIA does continue to move forward in the Senate, there is unlikely to be any movement before the Senate returns in 2014. In October, National Skills Coalition, along with 425 local, regional, state, and national organizations wrote to the members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee urging the Senate to bring WIA reauthorization to the floor

With just a few weeks remaining in 2013, it is hard to predict whether Congress will finish work on all of these items before time runs out. The House and Senate could choose to remain in session for an additional week to try to either resolve or make additional progress on some of these issues, particularly if the budget conferees are able to reach an agreement. Some issues, if left unresolved, could spill into 2014. However, for TAA and EUC, Congress’s failure to act could mean that these programs will lapse, even if just temporarily. 

National Skills Coalition will provide updates as they become available.