Congress is back in session, and Venable's Government Affairs Group has assessed the top priorities for the remainder of the 116th Congress. Comprising former members of Congress, senior executive branch officials, congressional staff, and regulatory officials, our team has a comprehensive understanding of the federal regulatory and policy process.
Congress has a sizeable to-do list upon its return, and little time to whittle it down before the end of the year. As 2019 comes to a close then, we predict that funding the government to avoid a shutdown, passing the National Defense Authorization Act, and ratifying the United States–Mexico–Canada Trade Agreement will be the top priorities. We also anticipate proposed legislation on prescription drug pricing, gun reform, surprise medical bills, the Hong Kong Human Rights Bill, and the continued regulation of large financial services institutions. Below is a summary of how we see these items, and other priorities:
Both chambers are back today and will be in session for three weeks in September and October. In November, the Senate is scheduled to be in for three weeks, with the House in for only two of those; both will return for two weeks in December, aiming for a target adjournment of December 12, 2019. All told, there are just 41 legislative days remaining in 2019 while both chambers are in session.
Drug Pricing and Surprise Medical Bills
House Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), are expected to release a prescription drug pricing proposal within the week to lower the cost of prescription medications in the United States. Significant opposition from the pharmaceutical industry is a hurdle to be overcome, but both congressional chambers and the White House are interested in reaching an agreement.
House and Senate committees have also advanced separate bipartisan legislation designed to address surprise medical bills. There are key differences in the bills that need to be resolved and, much like prescription drug pricing, there is significant industry opposition to be overcome. But this is another area where there is broad bipartisan interest in coming to a joint resolution.
The House Financial Services Committee, led by Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), will continue to focus on the regulation of large institutions, all while working to extend expiring programs, such as ExIm Bank and the National Flood Insurance Program. We expect the Senate Banking Committee to continue to look at consumer privacy protections, roll out a bipartisan Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering proposal, and begin to address the Trump administration's recently released GSE reform proposal. Regulators will continue to finalize rules stemming from the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act and, led by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, OCC, will likely put forward new reforms for the Community Reinvestment Act.
Funding the Government
There are only 13 days left before the end of the 2019 fiscal year, and a Continuing Resolution (CR) funding the government must be passed by the end of September to avoid a government shutdown. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has indicated the House will vote on a "clean" CR the week of September 16, 2019. At this time, aides predict the CR will run through November 21, 2019 – the last day the House will be in session before Thanksgiving break. So far the House has approved 10 of the 12 Fiscal Year 2020 spending bills, while the Senate has yet to begin its markup work. The Senate Appropriations Committee will move quickly upon its return, with markups scheduled for the Defense bill on September 10, 2019 and Labor-HHS on September 12, 2019. At this time there is a good chance other Senate bills, including Energy and Water and State-Foreign Ops, will also be marked up on September 12, 2019.
The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to move bills out of committee throughout September at the spending levels reflected in the budget agreement that was passed before the August recess. We expect that the Senate will try to pass a minibus in September, consisting of Defense, Labor-HHS, Energy and Water, and perhaps State-Foreign Operations. It is unlikely that Congress can pass a stand-alone Homeland Security bill, among others. By early December, we expect the bills that can be reconciled between the two chambers to be rolled into an omnibus bill. The bills that can't be reconciled will remain on a continuing resolution through September 30, 2020.
While a legislative solution is difficult to see at this point, conversations between the White House and both chambers of Congress are taking place. According to White House aides, the president has an appetite for results, and his team has had conversations with House and Senate committees. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has signaled that he is unlikely to bring up gun-related legislation without a clear signal from the president as to exactly what he would sign. Senator McConnell (R-KY) has indicated that could come as early as this week.
The framework being discussed by White House staff would include background checks, mental health, and cultural issues like video games.
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.VA), and Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) continue to discuss their bipartisan firearm background check legislation. Barring a push by the president, it is difficult to see any gun measure coming to a vote in the Senate.
Hong Kong Human Rights Bill
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will seek a vote in the Senate on S. 1838, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Senator Schumer expressly sought Majority Leader McConnell's help late last week, asking that the Senate "quickly bring up for debate and vote" on the bill once it returns from recess. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Menendez has also pledged to prioritize the legislation within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Congress returns. The bill, among other things, maintains strict State Department reporting requirements on Hong Kong.
If you have questions or would like additional information, please contact a member of our team.
National Defense Authorization Act
Senate and House negotiators have worked over the summer to resolve differences in the two versions and some are hopeful that the measure can be signed into law in September of 2019. However, Democrats are seeking a provision to prohibit any military funds from being diverted to a border wall. The president will not sign a measure with that prohibition in it, according to his aides. The issue has been dialed up by the recent outreach by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to inform them that $3.6 billion appropriated for military construction projects will be diverted to wall funding. The issue could hinder the ability to get the NDAA done.
While there will be a lot of pressure to get the NDAA signed into law before the end of the year, current political dynamics might dictate a slimmed-down bill that largely extends provisions of last year's bill.