As U.S. lawmakers near the halfway point of 2019, they are running up against an unofficial August deadline to make meaningful progress on legislation before much of the focus on Capitol Hill turns to 2020 elections.
Having passed just 18 pieces through May 24, the 116th Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive of all time.
Numbers are not everything. While 443 bills were passed in the 115th Congress, many of them were under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to annul recently enacted federal regulations, allowing President Donald Trump to roll back a number of Obama-era environmental protections. Many more were one-page long symbolic or ceremonial bills that renamed post offices, courthouses and the like and made up 109 of the session's total, according to Pew Research.
The handful of bills passed in this Congress also include changing the address of a post office in Charlottesville, Va., and promoting a retired Army captain to colonel. Substantive laws have been passed too, including reopening the government following the longest shutdown in U.S. history, a bipartisan public lands bill that enshrines environmental protections and conservation programs into law, and an extension of some Medicaid benefits.
However, most of the major bills the Trump administration hopes to pass in this session are either hanging in the balance or unlikely to pass.
They include an initiative to lower prescription drug prices; a proposal to preserve 30-year fixed mortgage rates and increase competition among mortgage guarantors; the passage of NAFTA replacement the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement; and a law to preempt Californian legislation that would require the likes of Facebook, Apple and Google to follow stricter labor rights rules.
"These issues that are really tough issues, where you have Republicans and Democrats who are really trying to find a way forward, you will begin to see that break down once we get into a contentious election season, so that's why there is a sense of urgency," said Muftiah McCartin, co-chair of the public policy practice group at Covington & Burling LLP, a law firm with offices in Washington D.C. "It's really conventional wisdom that August will be the cutoff for when we enter this contentious period."
The likelihood of Washington breaking the logjam seemed to take a turn for the worse when Trump walked out of a meeting with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, saying he will not work with them as long as congressional investigations into his administration continue.
It is worth noting that things can turn around quickly in Congress. At a similar time in 2018, Roosevelt University professor David Faris was calling the 115th Congress the laziest ever and predicted fewer than 250 bills would be passed, the least since the 35th Congress in 1857-1859. It went on to pass the most in five years.
Here is the status of the biggest pieces of legislation in play this year.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, listed housing finance as one of the top priorities for his committee in January as Democrats assumed majority control of the House of Representatives. House Financial Services Committee chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said before Crapo listed his priorities for 2019 that any changes made to government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must maintain consumer access to 30-year fixed mortgage rates.
Crapo has since said the way to get there "may or may not be legislative."
"I have a high confidence level in Treasury Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin and [Federal Housing Finance Agency Director] Mark Calabria to help us get there," Crapo said during a May 1 speech at an Independent Community Bankers of America conference in Washington. "And it may be that a number of things may need to be done [through regulations] or through executive action to help us get this law over the goal line."
Crapo said in an interview that he did not want to "create a deadline" when asked if it was possible to move a bill before August recess.
Democrats have pursued legislation to shore up the Affordable Care Act or provide universal healthcare coverage, but Republicans have largely rejected those measures, making them unlikely to succeed in the Senate.
The bills most likely to pass on Capitol Hill this term are bipartisan measures aimed at reining in surprise medical bills and lowering prescription drug prices, both issues the White House has previously supported.
A number of bills have been introduced to cut prescription costs, some of which have already been adopted by the House.
One of the latest bipartisan measures would codify a new final rule from the administration requiring drugmakers, starting in July, to disclose the list prices of their medicines in television advertisements aimed at consumers.
Lawmakers made some headway with Trump in April on infrastructure funding, but that progress eroded after the president said May 22 that he would not move forward with an infrastructure package until investigations into his administration conclude.
House and Senate Democratic leaders initially met with the president at the White House on April 30 to discuss plans for a "big and bold" $2 trillion infrastructure plan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the group would be back at the White House in roughly three weeks to discuss a way to finance the plan. That meeting ended after about three minutes before Trump headed to the Rose Garden outside the White House and berated Pelosi for accusing him of a "cover-up."
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the plan the president is pushing to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, has not yet received congressional approval as lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns to the Trump administration about some of the provisions in the framework.
Democrats want to see enforcement of labor rights in the deal, along with provisions on biologic drugs, according to Simon Lester, associate director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, had been pushing the administration to remove Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum from Mexico and Canada as a condition for support. A plan to remove the tariffs was agreed upon by all three countries earlier this month, helping to solidify some congressional support.
"Lifting these tariffs clears the path to passage in all three countries," Grassley said. "I'm optimistic that this renewed sense of momentum will carry USMCA across the finish line."
Democrats, for their part, are not in a rush to approve the agreement. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee's trade subpanel, said May 22 that the deal "will not be jammed" through the subcommittee or committee at large. He said Section 301 investigations of Mexico and Canada are "no substitute for strong enforcement provisions in NAFTA 2.0," adding that enforcement provisions must be part of a new deal.
In the data privacy space, some lawmakers want to pass a law to preempt California legislation that would require the likes of Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC to adhere to stricter privacy requirements. As members of Congress consider whether a federal bill should preempt state legislation, the issue appeared to be unresolved at a May 1 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
"Fundamental to providing truly meaningful privacy protections for consumers is a strong consistent federal law," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who chairs the committee. "This is critical to reducing consumer confusion about their privacy rights and ensuring that consumers can maintain the same privacy expectations across the country."
However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said preemption of state law is "just not going to happen."
That question is likely to color further negotiations between both parties, according to McCartin.
"Democrats and Republicans are engaged, and they're trying to get to a collaborative solution," she said. "I think that you're always going to have that longstanding philosophical issue on the challenge of preemption, and that's going to color that collaboration."
The split between the House and Senate has created a backlog of Democrat-passed House bills dealing with climate change. The House passed a bill May 2 that would require the U.S. to honor its commitments made under the Paris Agreement on climate change, but Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said Republican control of the Senate would make it difficult for the legislation to advance. The Office of Management and Budget has indicated it would recommend that the president veto the legislation if it were to make it to his desk.
The Senate is considering proposals to extend tax credits for certain renewable energy resources. Grassley introduced a bill in February that would amend sections of the U.S. tax code to lengthen the production tax credit for energy produced from a variety of renewable sources, including energy produced from landfill gas, trash and geothermal facilities. That bill has not moved out of the Senate as of publication.
In April, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced a bill that would create a 30% investment tax credit for refueling costs and qualified capital expenditures at existing nuclear plants. That bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance, and its companion legislation in the House has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.