Policy Matters: End-of-Year Federal Update

Congress Wraps up 2021

By Carolyn Sofman

Build Back Better’s Future Now Uncertain

In mid-November, the House passed the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act, 220–213, comprising much of the Biden-Harris administration’s economic, social and climate agenda. But the bill’s fate in the evenly divided Senate recently got more complicated, after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) announced his opposition following months of negotiations with his fellow Democrats and the White House to try to get him — as well as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — to “yes.” The House bill — already unlikely to be considered as is by the Senate — included $550 billion to fight climate change, as well as a one-year extension of the Child Tax Credit, universal pre-k, the expansion of Medicare benefits, four weeks of paid family and medical leave, immigration measures and tax policy changes. Manchin signaled opposition to a number of these provisions, as well as concerns about inflation, the national debt, the cost of the bill and the temporary length of some of its programs. Democrats and the White House are now assessing if there is a way to salvage some of these plans — and ensure Manchin’s support — including through a smaller bill with fewer programs funded for longer time periods. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) vowed to bring some form of Build Back Better to a vote in January, “so that every Member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor.” Any bill still will likely require consideration under budget reconciliation to avoid the Senate filibuster and only require a simple majority vote.

Congress Investigates the January 6 Insurrection

The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has steadfastly collected evidence and depositions from the team surrounding then-President Trump and those seeking to block certification of Biden’s election. Among those subpoenaed by the committee, several have pleaded their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, including longtime Trump ally Roger Stone. Others have declined to cooperate with the committee, relying on Trump’s claims of executive privilege — a request waived by President Biden and rejected by a federal appeals court. Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, for example, who did not work at the White House on January 6, has been indicted for contempt of Congress for his refusal to cooperate. After initially signaling some level of cooperation with the committee — including sharing emails, text messages and other documents — former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has also been referred to the Department of Justice for contempt of Congress charges. Meadows provided to the committee a PowerPoint presentation circulated by a retired Army colonel outlining ways to challenge the 2020 election results and text messages sent on January 6 from members of Congress, Fox News hosts and Donald Trump, Jr. urging the president to intervene and condemn the attack on the Capitol.

America Invests in Infrastructure

After months of debate in Congress, the House of Representatives followed the Senate’s lead in voting 228–206 to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden signed into law on November 15. The legislation — a sweeping $1.2 trillion package that includes $550 billion in new spending over the next five years to fund improvements to bridges and roads, transit, broadband access, water and energy systems, and other projects such as electric vehicle charging infrastructure — represents the largest U.S. investment in physical infrastructure in decades. While much of the bill’s funding will be distributed to states based on a traditional allocation formula, more than $120 billion of the new spending will be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (DOT) to allocate to state and local governments through dozens of competitive grant programs. The DOT has estimated that states could begin to receive funding in as soon as six months.

defense spending passed

The U.S. Senate passed the annual defense spending bill, 88–11, following House passage earlier this month on a vote of 363–70. It now heads to President Biden for his signature. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) provides $770 billion to fund national defense programs and procurement, and sets the policy agenda at the Department of Defense. Congress reached a bipartisan consensus on defense strategy and funding priorities, appropriating $25 billion more than the president’s budget request. The bill includes $28 billion for nuclear weapons activities and a 2.7% pay increase for Defense Department civilian employees and military service members. It also overhauls how the military prosecutes certain crimes, including sexual assault. All the military services will provide 12 weeks of parental leave for all service members. The bill also includes $300 million in security assistance to Ukraine, as nearly 100,000 Russian troops are situated on its eastern border — an increase of $50 million from President Biden’s budget request.

Senate Compromise Avoids National Default

In just the nick of time, Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill negotiated a compromise to enable Democrats to raise the debt ceiling — the United States’ national credit limit — without Republican votes. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had warned Congress that without raising or suspending the debt limit, the United States could be in danger of defaulting on its debts for the first time. Under the deal, both chambers of Congress passed — and President Biden signed — one-time legislation enabling Democrats in the 50–50 Senate to raise the debt limit on party lines, bypassing the usual 60-vote requirement and the threat of a Republican filibuster. On December 14, the Senate voted to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion — enough to likely prevent the issue from coming up again until 2023, after the 2022 midterm elections. The House then passed the Senate bill and the president signed it into law. The deal is the result of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) determination that Senate Republicans not be on the hook for raising the debt ceiling ahead of the 2022 campaign, while also averting potential catastrophic default and the resulting economic consequences. The compromise provoked criticism of McConnell by fellow Republicans, including former president Donald Trump.

Government Shutdown Averted

For months, Congress has been debating FY 2022 spending levels for federal agencies and programs. The budget should have been passed by September 30 — when FY 2021 government funding expired — but Congress bought itself more time, extending 2021 funding until December 3 via continuing resolution (CR). This month, the House and Senate Appropriations committees once again failed to reach agreement on the annual spending bills by the deadline. To narrowly avoid a government shutdown, Congress passed a second CR delaying FY 2022 decision-making until February 18. The compromise came after Republican senators attempted to deny funding for the Biden-Harris administration’s vaccination requirements for private companies with 100+ employees, stalling Senate action on the budget. For now, the government will continue to operate on Trump era spending levels.

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Carolyn develops and manages public affairs, integrated communications and public education campaigns.

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