Congress on Deadline: Why the House and Senate Lurch from One Crisis to the Next

For years, partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill has turned small, previously noncontroversial debates into moments of major crisis and halted any significant action on pressing deals until the 11th hour. Cans have been kicked, measures have been punted, decisions delayed.

But now, with Republicans in control of Congress, deadlines established weeks, months or even years ago are coming due. Over the next few months, Congress will face vertigo-inducing jolts from one cliff to the next as popular or essential programs speed toward an end.

Some deadlines between now and the end of September include: whether to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank; whether to extend a nutrition program for women, infants and children; the fate of a moratorium on internet sales taxes; how to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration; and how to continue the Highway Trust Fund. Congress must also pass appropriations measures funding the government through the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Additionally, the prospect of another fight over the federal debt ceiling looms; the Congressional Budget Office estimates the debt ceiling will need to be increased by October or November.

The consequences of missing an expiration date vary from the temporarily inconvenient — most supporters of the Export-Import Bank believe a brief interruption is likely before they will be able to marshal the votes to reauthorize it, and the last time Congress allowed the FAA’s authorization to lapse, travelers were stranded on tarmacs for hours as thousands of air traffic controllers were furloughed — to the politically perilous.

On the more fraught side, Senate Democrats have refused to consider appropriations bills that adhere to frugal spending caps, and the White House has threatened to veto those measures. Failure to pass spending measures, or omnibus legislation fully funding the federal government, by the end of September could lead to another government shutdown.

“Some of these [deadlines] are perennials. That doesn’t mean it’s good to have them as perennials. These are the kinds of things we should be resolving,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “It’s a result of Congress’s refusal, and the Republican leadership’s refusal, to come up with longer-term solutions to many of these challenges.”

The deadlines now facing Congress are the products of years of intractable partisan gridlock that began after Republicans recaptured control of the House of Representatives in 2010. The Republican House and the Democratic Senate routinely refused to give ground, leading to short-term extensions and the radical redefinition, downward, of the concept of a grand bargain, by longtime legislators like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Joe Biden.

In other cases, said Norm Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Republicans delayed action on measures that could have been extended in 2013 and 2014 in order to deprive Democrats of legislative accomplishments before the midterm elections, and as a gamble that they would gain leverage once they won back control of the Senate.

“The Republicans, especially in the Senate, decided they didn’t want anything resolved,” Ornstein said.

Just the first few months of the 114th Congress provided reasons for both optimism and pessimism that Congress can avoid plunging over any of the various cliffs: Republicans averted a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, and bipartisan legislation solving the so-called “Doc Fix” before it expired demonstrated at least some cross-party cooperation is possible.

But the temporary expiration of key provisions of the Patriot Act last week, after a showdown between McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and the near-shutdown of DHS after objections from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), exposed the limits of Senate rules, under which one senator can delay progress on a bill.

Even members who have used Senate rules to score legislative victories are beginning to voice frustration.

“It creates an environment in which lawmakers are left with very few options and forced to choose between two very unpleasant options, one of which involves allowing a particular program or a particular provision of law to expire, or alternatively to accept or reject in its entirety whatever legislative proposal happens to be on the floor at the last minute,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who used the McConnell-Paul showdown to force revisions of the expired Patriot Act programs.

“It’s a bad habit that the Senate got into, and I hope we can get out of it,” Lee added. “It’s a bipartisan problem. I’ve seen it happening certainly as long as I’ve been in the Senate.” Lee was elected to the chamber in 2010.

Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans throwing up roadblocks to whatever looming crisis comes next, the consequences of inaction scare Republicans the most. GOP leaders striving to demonstrate their party can be trusted with the reins of power face both the opportunity to show leadership by averting disaster and the potential catastrophe of failure.

The key challenge for Republican leaders will be managing floor time in a way that allows for deadlines to be met and for other legislative priorities — trade, a cybersecurity bill and patent reform legislation — to be heard.

“Multiple deadlines with scarce floor time force majorities to prioritize,” said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution. “It’s not clear to me that legislating by deadline necessarily empowers party leaders.”

Senate Majority Leader McConnell, a student of the institution he now runs, is keenly aware of the obstacles his party faces. In an interview last week, McConnell laid out an ambitious agenda ahead of the August recess — though he acknowledged the ticking clock.

“Floor time is always the coin of the realm in the Senate because it takes so long to do anything,” McConnell said. “The job of the majority leader is to try to figure out which things are the most important because you simply just can’t get to other things.”

McConnell said he has not turned his thoughts to the debt ceiling debate to come, though he added a new deadline to the list: A package of tax extenders that must pass by the end of the calendar year.

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