US Congress Thinks Big for 2016


December 25, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Until recently, it was all Congress could do to pass the most critical legislation. But after an unusually productive fall, lawmakers hoping to capitalize on Congress functioning well for the first time in years are thinking big about their plans for 2016.

December 25, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Until recently, it was all Congress could do to pass the most critical legislation. But after an unusually productive fall, lawmakers hoping to capitalize on Congress functioning well for the first time in years are thinking big about their plans for 2016.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference in the Capitol after Congress passed the omnibus spending bill, December 18, 2015.

In the summer, lawmakers announced progress on significant reforms to education law and a highway bill that would extend six years. Thanks to that, and to the sweeping nature of the October's budget deal and the subsequent omnibus spending bill that passed last week, the most contentious issues may have been addressed.

The immediate effect of October's budget deal, which raised discretionary spending caps by $50 billion for 2016 and another $30 billion in 2017, was to keep the government lights on for the year. But its more lasting impact could be the return of the appropriations process the way it is meant to be run, for the first time since 2001.

Lawmakers hope the budgetary breathing room will allow the appropriations committee to take up each of the 12 federal spending bills, debate and pass them separately, rather than all in an omnibus package.

The trust restored in 2015 is expected to lead to long-awaited legislation in several areas.

Higher Education

Looking to build on the success of the bipartisan, bicameral revamp of the elementary and secondary education law, lawmakers are hoping to follow up with reforms to higher education, including the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which formally expired in 2013.

We "need to simplify the jungle of red tape that governs our [institutions of higher] education, and we need to make it easier and simpler for students to go to college," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

A bipartisan task force released a report in February that set out guiding principles for measures that lawmakers hope will improve access and affordability for students, and will demand greater accountability from colleges and universities in exchange for federal aid.

Criminal Justice and Gun Violence

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle began rolling out a broad package of criminal justice reforms this fall. Both parties' leadership have signaled support for the legislation, which takes a multi-pronged approach to reducing prison populations and costs, decreasing recidivism rates and tackling troubling patterns within policing and sentencing.

"This is the closest we have come to turning reform into reality, and we are looking to congressional leadership in January to take action on sentencing reform as quickly as possible," says Sakira Cook of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The unexpected partnership of Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, helped to convince a skeptical Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to back their cause and help craft legislation to reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders.

A Democratic leadership aide, confirming plans to continue to press for legislation that would reverse the successes anti-abortion advocates have seen on the state level, added that gun violence legislation would continue to be a top priority.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Perhaps the biggest task facing Congress – and one that is likely to drag well into the year – is the formal approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Congress passed fast-track legislation this summer by the narrowest of margins and, in doing so, limited themselves to an up-or-down vote on the final legislation that would implement the complicated free trade agreement.

The deal, which would eventually encompass some 40 percent of the world's gross domestic product, wrapped in October, but opponents of it have been buoyed by the number of high-profile members of both parties that have come out against it.

"With both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump opposed to the deal, Rosa is going to continue to work with a broad coalition of labor, environmental, and consumer groups to defeat TPP," says Ron Boehmer, communications director for Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

But history is on the side of the deal: Congress has never voted down a free trade agreement negotiated under fast-track authority. And there are signs that some of the top congressional Republicans, who expressed some concerns when the deal was announced, are swinging in its favor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not said which way he would vote, but House Speaker Paul Ryan, who initially sounded ambivalent about the deal, now seems to be an advocate for the landmark agreement.

"We have to engage," Ryan said. "Only an active, forward-leaning America can tear down barriers to American exports."

The Refugee Crisis

The House in November passed the bill to ratchet up the restrictions on refugees, and attempted to include the language in the omnibus spending bill. The House vote, just days after attacks in Paris killed 130 people, earned the support of nearly 50 Democrats, but many backed away from legislation critics say would do little to prevent would-be terrorists from entering the country while blocking thousands of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State group.

Ryan was able to extract a promise from McConnell for the Senate to take up the bill in January, and while it may narrowly pass, President Barack Obama has promised to veto it.

Helping Puerto Rico

Republican leadership did agree to bring up legislation to aid Puerto Rico, which is a priority for Democrats as well. The island territory, which has $72 billion in debts that it can't pay off and is teetering on the brink of default, is prevented under U.S. law from entering into bankruptcy. Democrats lobbied to change that policy on the spending bill, but settled for the promise of a vote in 2016.

"Congress has a responsibility to ensure that Puerto Rico's debt crisis does not turn into an economic catastrophe for the millions of Americans living there," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement.

Courtesy: US News & World Report