The pronouncements that this Congress is one of the least productive in history have reached a crescendo. Of the 25 bills that have been signed into law so far, even the most rudimentary took a tortured route to passage.
But just as there are signs that parties and chambers can work together to get things done—witness the bill to lower student-loan rates that was signed last week—there are bills that stand a solid chance of navigating the legislative maze to passage, according to interviews with lawmakers and staff.
Like much of the business of government, many of these bills are not sexy, including measures that tackle water infrastructure, pharmaceutical compounding, and postal reforms. But they contain solid legislative work that affects the everyday lives of millions of Americans.
Of course, no one has a crystal ball, and anything can happen when Congress returns from its break to address fiscal issues and the debt ceiling. But here are seven measures that could find success after the August break:
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is set to mark up the Water Resources Reform and Development Act in September, readying it for an October floor vote. Significantly, it has support from committee Democrats, which means there should be no floor-time surprises of the sort that met the farm bill and certain spending measures earlier this year.
The Senate has passed its own version, also on a bipartisan vote. The only questions start to arise if the measure makes it to a conference committee.
Last year, the Senate was able to force most of its bipartisan highway bill through the House because the House proved unable to pass its own version. For this bill, however, House negotiators are in a much stronger position to bargain. They will insist that mandates for the Army Corps of Engineers—such as automatically deauthorizing projects that have been delayed too long—remain in the final product.
Sentencing policies are about to spring back onto the agenda, after Attorney General Eric Holder said Mondaythat the Justice Department may no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for some lesser drug crimes.
And the issue could have a legislative future, too. Bipartisan legislation to reform the country's statutory minimum-sentencing laws, to combat skyrocketing prison populations, and to curb what some say is money wasted on lengthy prison terms for nonviolent crimes, including many drug offenses, is under construction.
Bills such as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, for example, would give judges more discretion in setting sentences. The measure was introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. A companion measure has been introduced with bipartisan sponsors in the House.
A separate measure to modernize federal sentencing for nonviolent offenses, The Smarter Sentencing Act, has been introduced by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
The national defense authorization bill is a contender to become law. The House passed its version of the bill in early July, 315-108, and the Senate is expected to take up its version before the end of the session, according to a Democratic leadership aide.
The House's bill authorizes Pentagon appropriations for a range of programs, including procurement, research and development, and operations and maintenance, as well as NATO and base closures. It also sets requirements for personnel and training, military pay, and health care. The Senate Armed Services Committee reported its bill to the Senate in June.
The Senate version of the legislation establishes an undersecretary of Defense for management and also authorizes appropriations to the Energy Department for the department's national security programs.
A pharmaceutical compounding bill to more clearly define the roles of the Food and Drug Administration and state boards of pharmacy in overseeing pharmaceutical compounding facilities, which custom mix drugs, could become law by year's end.
A bipartisan Senate bill passed out of committee in May, and supporters hoped for, but did not get, a vote before the August recess. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced an updated version of the legislation in July.
The House version of the legislation hasn't gotten out of committee yet, and a discussion draft introduced by Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., differs from the Senate version in how it categorizes compounding facilities for regulation. The House has passed a separate bill to more closely track drugs through the nation's supply chain, something that would be done in the Senate Health and Education Committee's compounding bill.
Hope remains that legislation could be enacted this year, in part because the momentum to pass new regulations has been steady since last fall's deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis from tainted steroid injections produced by a compounding center in Massachusetts. Hundreds became sick from the injections and more than 60 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Monday, Alexander pointed to another reason Congress should pass a compounding bill: FDA issued a voluntary recall this weekend of compounded drugs from a Texas-based company citing concerns that they may have been responsible for an outbreak of bacterial bloodstream infections.
Some Aspects of Postal Reform
Previous congressional efforts to address the bleeding finances of the U.S. Postal Service have sputtered, thanks to a lack of Senate-House agreement over how to approach the problem. The Senate passed a bill last session, but the House did not vote on that bill, nor did it pass its own version.
Meanwhile, the Postal Service has continued to hemorrhage money, albeit at a slower pace than before, according to a quarterly report on its finances released Monday.
Now, both chambers are back at it. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's new bill was approved by his committee along party lines. It includes efforts to soften previous proposals to close rural post offices, which could provide House leadership with the votes they need to bring the bill to the floor.
A bipartisan Senate bill introduced last week by House Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., and the committee's ranking member, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., contains some significant differences. For instance, the Senate Democrats still want a more delayed transition to five-day mail delivery (with Saturday delivery limited to packages), as opposed to the House bill, which immediately ends Saturday service. But there is also agreement in both bills on certain measures, such as authorizing the Postal Service to offer new services, such as issuing fishing or hunting licenses.
Senate Democrats will have a number of problems with the bill, including possibly "delivery-point modernization" that could impact "to-the-door" delivery. And they may have a problem with Issa's limits on collective bargaining. But there is optimism that both chairmen are genuinely committed to working toward some agreement, even if it is not as comprehensive as some may like.
Medical Devices Legislation
Legislation to repeal a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices enacted to help pay for President Obama's health care law stands a chance of passage. In the House, the bill has 259 cosponsors. In the Senate, a 79-20 symbolic, nonbinding vote was taken in March to repeal the tax as part of its 2014 budget resolution.
The holdup seems easily fixed. The sponsor of the House measure, Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., has said he's been pressing House leaders to take action, but that they have expressed concern about sending a revenue bill to the Senate.
The Constitution requires revenue measures to originate in the House, but once the Senate receives those bills, they can be used as a vehicle for the Senate's own tax priorities. Some House Republicans point to the potential use of these bills by Senate Democrats to advance tax hikes and other measures that Republicans oppose. So, their strategy on this bill—and other revenue bills—has been that the House will have to first secure a commitment from Senate Democrats that they will address the medical-device tax specifically, and not other priorities.
But the pressure is building. Last week, 35 of the 37 House GOP freshmen wrote a letter to their leadership asking for a vote. Their letter noted that more than 8,000 medical-device manufacturers in the United States employ more than 420,000 people. The tax, enacted in 2010 and which took effect in January 2013, "will raise nearly $30 billion from America's medical-device manufacturers, putting up to 43,000 high-paying U.S. jobs at risk," the letter said.
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
Legislation to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees requests for surveillance warrants, could get a boost after the recent revelations that it authorized broad record-collection and surveillance of Americans.
Reform efforts have sputtered in the past. But revelations in June about the National Security Agency's activities, brought to light by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, have spawned some unusual interparty coalitions of concerned lawmakers.
Obama too has addressed the issue, calling as late as Friday for reforms to the court that would introduce an "independent voice" that would "make sure the government's position is challenged by an adversary." He said he would work with Congress to push the reforms through.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., have announced two new bills that would change the FISA court. One would create a special advocate with the power to argue in the FISA courts on behalf of the right to privacy and other individual rights. The second bill would reform how judges are appointed to the FISA courts, to ensure that the court is geographically and ideologically diverse.
Mike Catalini, Catherine Hollander, Elahe Izadi. and Fawn Johnson contributed
This article appears in the Aug. 13, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.
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