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Multiple Challenges Await Congress as Legislators Return to Work

Multiple Challenges Await Congress as Legislators Return to Work

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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

After a five-week summer break, Congress has returned to work, facing the daunting challenge of dealing with the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and its relief and recovery operations. The focus will first be on approving an aid package for Texas and Louisiana.

Congress will also need to come up with a budget for the next federal fiscal year, which begins on October 1. Legislators will also have to raise the debt ceiling to prevent a potential government shutdown.

Both actions need to happen while Congress is in the midst of an intra-party squabble between the Republicans and President Trump.

Congress Debates Aid Package for Texas

The Associated Press reported that the House and Senate are expected to vote quickly on the first $7.9 billion aid installment to help with the immediate recovery and rebuilding needs in Houston and other affected areas. Additional billions will be tucked into a catch-all spending bill later in the month that will keep the lights on in government after September 30.

Hurricane Sandy Aid from Congress Went to Non-Disaster Areas

Will Congress replicate what happened after Hurricane Sandy? In 2012, Sandy slammed into the Eastern seaboard and caused over $70 billion in damage.

Congress then passed what some members of Congress called a “pork-filled” aid package. But much of the needed relief was going to areas and projects far from the disaster area.

Just last month, The Hill’s Opinion Contributor, Rachel Bovard, reported that in 2012, President Obama requested a $60.4 billion supplemental funding bill from Congress to aid those people most affected by Hurricane Sandy. According to Bovard, “that’s not what Congress gave him [Obama] or what he signed.”

The bill was filled with pork barrel spending. Only half of it went toward hurricane relief.

Bovard provided a sample of what was included the final legislation:

  • $150 million for Alaska fisheries (Hurricane Sandy was on the East Coast of the U.S.; Alaska is the country’s westernmost tip)
  • $2 million for the Smithsonian Institution to repair museum roofs in Washington, D.C. (a city largely unaffected by Hurricane Sandy)
  • $8 million to buy cars and equipment for the Homeland Security and Justice departments (at the time of the Sandy supplemental aid, these agencies already had 620,000 cars between them)
  • $1.1 million to repair national cemeteries (because, why not?)
  • $821 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge waterways with no relation to Hurricane Sandy (the Corps never likes to waste a disaster)
  • $10 million for FBI salaries and expenses (it seemed like a good idea)
  • $118 million for Amtrak ($86 million to be used on non-Sandy related Northeast corridor upgrades).

Bovard went on to say, “As if the collective non-disaster-related efforts of the bill needed to be underlined in a big red pen, only 15 percent of the bill’s funding needed to be spent in the first fiscal year. Nearly 64 percent of the massive supplemental aid was spent well after 2014; [some of the funding will be used] as late as 2021.”

Even today, five years after Hurricane Sandy, many New Jersey residents are still not living in their former homes. So will we witness a replication of this displacement with Hurricane Harvey? (Ironically, two of the main opponents of providing aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy were senators from Texas.)

The disaster in Texas may get all the attention, but Congress will also have to deal with raising the United States’ $19.9 trillion debt ceiling. Congress must pass legislation by September 29 and President Trump must sign it by September 30 for the U.S. to avoid default and continue to borrow money to pay for its financial obligations. A default will send financial markets reeling.

President Trump Announces Ending of DACA Immigration Program

If hurricane relief and the debt ceiling aren’t enough for Congress to handle, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday that President Trump has decided to end former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This federal program protected young immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation under certain conditions.

Now, there is pressure for Congress to step in with a fix to save nearly 800,000 law-abiding taxpayers from the threat of deportation. Legal scholars have debated whether Obama had the constitutional authority to create the DACA program.

Trump’s decision to end DACA is a highly charged issue for Congress. It has been decades since any meaningful, comprehensive immigration legislation was passed.

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Tax Reform Presents an Additional Challenge for Congress

The Republicans will try again to pass tax reform legislation. However, the last time Congress made any effort to overhaul the often-byzantine tax code was well over 30 years ago. Will Congress, with all its political factions, be able to overhaul the nation’s tax code?

After the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, can the Republicans muster enough votes to rework the tax codes and lower taxes for voters, especially the middle class?  Many voters may forgive Congress for its failure on health care, but failure on tax reform could have election consequences in next year’s mid-term election.

November 1 is the beginning of the Obamacare (formerly the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or ACA) enrollment period. As in the past couple of years, consumers could face increased health care premiums and they will look to Congress for solutions.

Health care will definitely be a huge issue in next year’s mid-term elections. The ACA enrollment period will begin six days before voters go to the polls. If there is no action in Congress on the ACA by then, it will be interesting to see who voters blame the most, Republicans or Democrats?

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