Once Summer Winds Down Expect Congress to Heat Up

Charles Cooper

Looking ahead, this Congress will have a major impact on several issues and will shape the policy around them.

The 116th Congress has completed its first six months, and their work has been an interesting mix of leadership transitions, intra-party disagreements, Republican retirements, a remarkably inconsistent relationship with the White House, lots of oversight, and some legislating (38 bills signed into law).

By any measure, there have been major bipartisan victories, including the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (the first of its kind in over a decade) and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (effectively ending sequestration). Not surprisingly, partisanship remains high, and the atmosphere at times seems more like the fights on a political campaign than meaningful policy debates.

Looking ahead, this Congress will have a major impact on several issues and will shape the policy around them. Regardless of whether these issues are passed and signed into law during the remainder of the 116th Congress (and some may be), I believe that the policies will be developed, vetted and solidified this Congress. The issues to watch:

Consumer Privacy: While the discussions around consumer data privacy technically began in the 115th Congress (as a result of concerns around the technology industry), the bulk of the legislative work will be a product of the 116th Congress. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely to introduce legislation in the fall and the Senate Commerce Committee is working on their own version – both hoping to do so with bipartisan support. Multiple other leading policymakers in the tech space are exploring their own bills as well, which could be molded into a moving vehicle.

Consumer privacy is not only driven by support on Capitol Hill, of course. The President has expressed a strong interest in the issue, and policies in both California and Europe are creating more urgency for policymakers to act.

Factors that will help push consumer privacy along this Congress:

  1. Bipartisan and bicameral support,
  2. A January 1, 2020 implementation deadline for the California Consumer Privacy Act, and
  3. Industry engagement.  

Surface Transportation: The existing surface transportation bill (the FAST Act) expires on September 30, 2020. Despite the current political climate working against legislation that requires new revenue and lacks “earmarks” to fuel movement, there is a strong interest in developing and moving reauthorization legislation this Congress.

The ongoing threat of antiquated transportation networks isn’t new, but a dilapidated infrastructure and declining funds do not make a good combination. Policymakers recognize this and have already started the process of drafting legislation. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bipartisan reauthorization bill (American Transportation Infrastructure Act) just before leaving for the August recess. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is working hard to develop their own bill and have been aggressively holding hearings and meeting with stakeholder groups to do just that.

Of course, without a revenue solution (which doesn’t currently exist), legislation will never move, but the pieces are falling into place.

Factors that will help push surface transportation along this Congress:

  1. Bicameral and bipartisan support,
  2. Urgency to fix the funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, and
  3. An opportunity to move legislation that provides economic growth.

Trade: For Congress, the trade policy space has been frustrating as they stand on the outside of the ongoing tariff battle between the White House and China (with a fourth round of tariffs on imports from China expected on September 1, 2019). Despite a slew of hearings in the House and Senate, the President has largely driven the trade debate.

That said, the U.S. – Mexico – Canada Agreement (renegotiated NAFTA) requires Congressional approval and Congress has now taken center stage in the effort to ratify the USMCA. While Republicans strongly support the USMCA, this will require bipartisan support to get through the House.

Democrats are actively engaged in discussing priorities and concerns with the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House is expected to send the legislation to the Congress in the fall.

Factors that will help push trade policy along this Congress:

  1. Bicameral and increasingly bipartisan support,
  2. A key White House priority,
  3. A strong interest by both parties to move the legislation before the debate is impacted by the 2020 election cycle, and
  4. A fear that the President may unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA.

Public Lands / Outdoor Recreation: Congress had a major bipartisan win earlier this year when bipartisan public lands legislation (highlighted above) was signed into law. The bill, among other things, reestablished public lands policy as bipartisan after several issues divided Congress and related stakeholder groups. It also made historic gains around policy issues that had not moved in years.

Despite all the “wins” that were included in the bill, there are several issues that remain on the table from permit streamlining to funding billions of dollars in maintenance backlog on public lands. These (and others) are priorities for a wide cross section of Congress and the administration. Committees in the House and Senate have also focused on these issues and there is intertest in seeing additional public lands and recreation priorities move through the legislative process.

Factors that will help push public lands and recreation policy along this Congress:

  1. Bipartisan and bicameral support, and
  2. Momentum in the policy space created by the passage of the public lands bill.

Autonomous Vehicle: The 115th Congress made great progress in AV legislation and certainly launched the first meaningful debate on the issue in Congress. The House passed the Self-Drive Act in committee and on the House floor without any opposition. The Senate came close to passing their version of the bill, the AV Start Act, but ran out of time at the end of the 115th Congress. Nonetheless, there was a tremendous amount of time and energy spent moving the debate along, and that will certainly be leveraged to get similar legislation across the finish line in the 116th Congress.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee are working together to kick start the process of developing legislation around self-driving cars – a clear statement that they are serious about getting a bill signed into law this Congress.

Of course, autonomous vehicle legislation has many stakeholders – well beyond the AV companies that have a large interest in the issue. While there is strong demonstrated support for legislation, it remains complicated and will require significant effort to build off the progress of the 115th Congress.

Factors that will help push autonomous vehicle policy along this Congress:

  1. Bipartisan and bicameral support,
  2. Committees of jurisdiction on both sides of the Capitol working in alignment,
  3. A legislative history with strong bipartisan support in the House, and
  4. An existing agreement on many of the core policy issues between industry and stakeholder groups.

Climate Change: I can only imagine the gasps that adding climate change to a list of “moveable” issues in the 116th Congress would bring in Washington, DC. After all, this is one of the most (if not the most) partisan Congresses in history, and climate change is one of the issues that has most clearly divided the two parties. On top of that, recent efforts to advance major climate reforms (cap and trade, the Paris Agreement, etc.) have done little to bring the parties together around a common solution.

However, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are increasingly looking for ways to advance the climate change debate. Republicans are coming to the table and offering potential solutions. Most recently, the transportation reauthorization legislation (referenced above), drafted by Republicans and Democrats, included an entire title on climate change with billions of dollars of funding to reduce carbon emissions and counter climate change. The House Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crises are helping to elevate the issue.

While there could very well be some climate policy “wins” this Congress, there won’t be comprehensive legislation signed into law. The important take away is that the 116th Congress is helping to shape the debate, bring well-positioned voices to the table from both sides of the political aisle, and take small steps to include climate change provisions in meaningful bipartisan bills.   

Factors that will help push climate change policy along this Congress:

  1. More conservative Republicans taking a leadership role on climate change, and
  2. The inclusion of climate provisions and funding within core legislation.
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