Monday, January 6, 2014

"Save the Date" - Significant 2014 Water Policy Dates and Deadlines

The calendar has turned from 2013 to 2014, and below is a chronology of months and dates that may prove to be significant within the Mississippi River Basin water policy arena during the upcoming year.

January: Possible Significant Congressional Legislative Activity
The 113th Congress reconvenes with the possibility of passage during the month of three significant pieces of legislation that Congress failed to pass in 2013: a comprehensive farm bill, the Water Resources Development Act, and a Federal omnibus Fiscal Year 2014 spending bill. All three pieces of legislation are currently being negotiated by three, separate House-Senate conference committees, and each may see floor votes before the month is out.  If a conference committee's bill is passed by the committee, it will go directly to the floor of both the House and Senate for an "up or down" vote (i.e., it will not be open to amendment).  In the first chamber to consider the conference report, a member may move to recommit the bill to the conference committee. However, once the first chamber passes the conference report, the conference committee is dissolved, and the second chamber to act on the bill cannot recommit the bill to conference.

January 28: President’s State of the Union Address
House Speaker John Boehner has officially invited President Obama to deliver his State of the Union message to a January 28 joint session of Congress.  The President informally kicks off the annual Federal budgetary process by reciting what amounts to his "wish list" of legislative priorities for the coming Congressional year.  This year, the President is even less likely to find a Congress willing to give serious consideration to his priorities than in the past, in particular since 2014 is a midterm election year (see below), during which key pieces of legislation proposed by either party typically face bigger obstacles than usual.

February 3: The President's Budget Submission 
The President will formally initiate the Fiscal Year 2015 Federal budget cycle when he submits his administration's annual budget for the upcoming fiscal year to Congress. While the President is required by law to submit his annual budget on or before the first Monday in February, Congress has often provided deadline extensions; either statutorily or informally. Following the President's budget release, members of Congress would traditionally begin to negotiate and adopt a Budget Resolution in response to the President’s plan; House and Senate committees would schedule and hold budget hearings regarding the agencies under their jurisdiction, and Appropriations Committees in both the Senate and House would go about developing legislation to allocate funds (ostensibly in line with Fiscal Year 2015 spending ceilings set by the Budget Resolution). There are twelve appropriation subcommittees in each chamber, and each would be tasked with drafting legislation to allocate funds to government agencies within their respective jurisdictions. However, very few recent budget cycles have proven to follow this “traditional” process, and this year may prove to be similarly unconventional. An informative Congressional Research Service introduction to the Congressional appropriations process can be read on-line or downloaded here (as a PDF file).

March: Federal Debt Ceiling Deadline
Sometime during March, an uneasy Democratic-Republican truce over the extension of the debt ceiling will end, and members of both parties will renew the partisan fight about raising it.  The debt ceiling debate will serve to complicate any budget discussions that might be ongoing regarding the 2015 fiscal year.  The exact timing of when the debt ceiling limit will be reached is unclear, since the Treasury Department may use "extraordinary measures" to put off reaching the limit, and defaulting on Federal obligations. Nonetheless, we can anticipate debt-limit diatribe to reappear in earnest in March, consuming much of Congress's time and attention (you can read an overview of what this means, in reality, including a discussion of "extraordinary measures," here).

July: Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone" Report
Researchers will report on the results of a summer Gulf of Mexico water quality survey cruise during July, when the size of the summer's "dead" or hypoxic zone off the coast of Louisiana and Texas will be released.  The hypoxic zone forms each summer, fed in large part by the runoff of nutrients from the Mississippi River Basin that augments large algal blooms in the Gulf.  The blooms deplete dissolved oxygen levels when the algae die. Among other results, the hypoxia threatens a Gulf ecosystem supporting valuable commercial and recreational fisheries. The 2013 summer Gulf of Mexico dead zone was measured at 5,840 square miles; roughly the size of Connecticut. Publication of the annual report is typically an event around which water quality advocates release information to the media, Congress, the Administration and public, promoting measures to improve the River Basin's water quality.

August and October: Congressional Recesses
In a year already likely to see little in the way of nonpartisan dialogue and passage of significant legislation (apart from the measures mentioned above), two large periods of official Congressional inactivity in August and October practically guarantee that little progress will be made on many water resource policy matters during this legislative year.  Congress annually flees the Washington, DC's summer heat and humidity in August.  This year, the month of October, too, will find few members in the nation's capitol, as many will be in their home states and districts, actively running for reelection.

September 30: End of the 2014 Federal Fiscal Year
While not always the case, the approach of the fiscal year's end often means that Congress is under increasing pressure to pass spending legislation for the upcoming (2015) fiscal year.  If Congress and the Administration cannot legislatively agree by the end of September on a comprehensive appropriation's strategy for Fiscal Year 2015 (which starts on October 1), then several scenarios present themselves, including passage of a omnibus or a partial continuing resolution, a partial or full government shutdown, passage of some but not all appropriation bills, or some combination of the above.  No matter the outcome, the approaching deadline will likely be a focal point of pre-election debate and disagreement. 

November 4: Mid-Term Election Day
During the 2014 midterm election, all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 seats in the U.S. Senate (including Senate races in eight Mississippi River states) will be contested. The election outcome will go a long way in determining how much political leverage the President has during the last two years of his second term.  Republicans need a net gain of six seats to realize control of the Senate, and it is likely that Republicans will maintain a majority in the House. Additionally, there will be numerous contests for governor and statehouse control across the country and River Basin (six Mississippi River states will hold gubernatorial elections).

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