Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Look Ahead at a Crowded Legislative Agenda

A crowded legislative and rhetorical agenda means that Congress will have limited time and little attention to give to large, complicated pieces of legislation that impact the Mississippi River Basin environment over the upcoming weeks and months; bills such as the farm bill and Water Resources Development Act (or WRDA).

Members of the House and Senate have been off over the past five weeks on summer recess, but officially return to work on September 9 for nine scheduled working days before a September 30 end to the 2013 fiscal year.  Bills relevant to Mississippi River Basin water resource issues will effectively be placed onto the back burner during at least the first week back in action - and potentially longer - while Congress considers more pressing, near-term issues:  the Federal budget, a looming debt ceiling limit and President Obama’s Syria military resolution. On the budget front, before the end of September, Congress is expected to pass another stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution,  financing the Federal government for several more months.  Current indications are that Congress will  pass a continuing resolution that lasts until December 15, setting up another year-end spending battle then.  It isn't yet clear whether the drafters of the spending legislation will seek to hold funding at their current levels or cut spending further.  Before tackling the budget, the Syrian resolution will likely take up several days worth of political oxygen.  Beyond September, a debt-ceiling deadline looms, marking the point when the Federal government is no longer able to borrow money to remain fiscally in the black.  Republicans are promising to make the deadline a focal point for debate on spending levels, while the President has said raising the debt ceiling will not be subject to further deliberation (the debt ceiling deadline and ensuing Congressional debate could slip into November if tax receipts come in stronger than expected).

As we wait for that legislative logjam to clear, here are where things currently stand on the two water resource-related pieces of legislation mentioned above: WRDA and the farm bill:

Water Resources Development Act
WRDA bill was passed by the Senate in May, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-9-PA) is set to bring a House version of the bill before his Committee in September, but reportedly only if he is first guaranteed House floor time for the bill after it comes out of Committee (not a given).  In addition to sections of the WRDA bill of a more national scope, the Senate-passed measure contains several provisions that directly reference and would impact Mississippi River Basin and Gulf Coast waters (to see an overview of the Senate bill, you can read this summary).  That bill's so-called project "streamlining provisions" are particularly contentious and opposed by many environmental organizations, lawyer groups, and state wetlands and floodplain managers.

Farm Bill
Portions of the current farm bill will expire at the end of September absent passage of a new measure, or another extension of the 2008 bill, neither of which will be easy given the very limited number of legislative days remaining until the end of the month.  Both the House and Senate have passed somewhat differing versions of the bill, setting up a likely Senate conference with the House to resolve language differences.  The Senate has formally requested a conference, and at this point the conferencing process requires House agreement to conference with the Senate and for the House to appoint its conference committee members.   It is reported that House Speaker John Boehner plans to appoint conferees following that chamber's consideration of a nutrition bill sometime soon after the summer recess (the most glaring difference between the current House and Senate farm bill measures is the absence in the House bill of a nutrition title).  For the latest news on the farm bill, see our summary here.

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