By Max Behlke
Across the country, state legislators are wrapping up productive sessions where they debated key issues, passed thousands of bills, and approved balanced budgets. Yet, in Washington, a lot remains on the table.
The question at hand: What will Congress consider before the mid-term elections in November? The first year of the biennial session was historically unproductive. In 2013, Congress passed fewer substantive measures than any Congress before it in its first year. This was largely because of the contentious federal budget deficit debate that monopolized Capitol Hill politics in recent years. Since passage of the Ryan-Murray budget in December, which established a budget framework for the FY 14 and 15 budgets, Congress has rushed to address other pressing issues. And while votes remain scarce during the party primary process there are indeed issues that must be addressed before November.
At the top of the list is the reauthorization of MAP-21—the way the federal government funds transportation infrastructure—which expires at the end of September. The administration and the Senate are expected to unveil their proposals in the coming weeks. Additionally, Congress faces the potential insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to pay for roads and transit projects, as soon as this summer. The fund historically has been funded through the federal gas tax, which was last increased in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon. As Americans have driven less and vehicles have become more fuel efficient—not to mention rising construction costs—the fund has become severely depleted.
Also on the infrastructure front, the Conference Committee on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) will likely produce a conference report in the next month, which would mean billions of dollars for water infrastructure projects.
Another looming deadline is passage of the 12 regular appropriations bills before Sept. 30. The appropriations measures must adhere to the budget caps enacted in the Ryan-Murray Budget. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) have signaled they hope to have all the measures enacted before the start of the new fiscal year. Should all or some of the bills not be enacted by then, however, Congress may consider a continuing resolution that would maintain government funding at the current levels for a specified period of time to avert a government shutdown.
Other legislation under consideration includes the extension of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which prohibits states from taxing Internet access, and the NCSL-endorsed Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), which would allow states to require remote retailers to collect and remit sales tax. Should Congress fail to extend ITFA by Nov. 1, every state would have the ability to tax the cost of Internet access. Passage of the legislation is a top priority for leaders in both chambers. Sources on the Hill, however, indicate it is unlikely that Senate will pass ITFA without also passing the legislation in tandem with MFA, which passed the Senate on May 6, 2013, and is under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.
Other issues on Congress’ radar include extension of unemployment benefits; tax extenders, legislation that extends a number of expiring or expired tax provisions; and immigration reform. Given the tenuous political environment on Capitol Hill combined with a grueling political campaign season, however, it is unlikely Congress will take action on many controversial issues before the general election and may hold them for the lame-duck session in November and December. Whether there is a lame duck session will be determined by the outcome on Election Day. Only then we will know if Congress plans to make the lame-duck session robust or whether it chooses to wait until the new Congress is seated. Stay tuned.
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Max Behlke is manager, State-Federal Relations, for the National Conference of State Legislatures Washington, D.C., office.