Congress returns from its August recess staring down a number of important deadlines that will determine whether the government stays open past the end of September.
With neither chamber having completed work on the appropriations bills that fund federal agencies in the new fiscal year that starts October 1, Congress will most certainly need to pass a so-called continuing resolution to keep government running. However, disagreements over spending levels and emergency funding requested by the Biden administration for Ukraine and disaster relief may make passage of a stopgap spending bill a tough hill to climb.
The biggest divisions are between Republicans; while the Senate GOP generally supports spending levels agreed to last spring between Congress and the White House, House Republicans – spurred by the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus – are demanding steeper cuts to domestic programs. The roughly three dozen members of the Caucus have said they will not support a continuing resolution to keep government running unless it not only locks in lower spending levels, but also includes several of their policy goals, including border security legislation, measures to “address the unprecedented weaponization of the Justice Department and FBI,” and measures to “end the Left’s cancerous woke policies in the Pentagon.”
Since Republicans have only a five-seat majority in the House, even a few “no” votes from Freedom Caucus members could sink a continuing resolution. This puts House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in a tricky spot: he either will have to accede to the demands, risking a government shutdown; or rely on House Democrats to pass a stopgap funding bill and bypass his hardline members, which will no doubt raise their ire against him and potentially threaten his hold on the Speakership.
Agency funding is not the only deadline that arrives at the end of September: Congress needs to pass a new five-year farm bill, reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding, and pass a budget for the Defense Department.
Closer to home for the CRM industry, the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) also expires at the end of September. Bipartisan legislation in the House would extend the HPF for 10 years and increase its annual authorization from $150 million to $250 million. In the Senate, meanwhile, the Appropriations Committee included a one-year extension to the Fund in its annual appropriations bill for the Interior Department. With all the other deadlines fast approaching, it is looking more likely that Congress will need to pass a short-term extension of the HPF and defer on a longer-term bill until later, once the dust settles on the fighting over the larger budget issues.
With only a handful of days in session between now and the end of the fiscal year September 30, Congress has its work cut out for it. Of course, the government’s fiscal year is not the only date on the calendar that impacts what policymakers can get done: the Iowa caucus – the first contest in the 2024 presidential campaign – is only 125 days away.
More NEPA Changes on the Horizon. In August, the Biden administration released a proposed rule to finish undoing changes the previous administration made to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and to align it with recent changes approved by Congress.
The proposal comes a year after CEQ finalized regulations to undo part of the 2020 NEPA reforms instituted under the Trump administration that exempted classes of federal actions from NEPA review and restricted the types of project effects to be examined during the NEPA review process. And they come a few months after Congress approved, and President Biden signed into law, changes to NEPA as part of the deal to avoid a government default. Those changes, which included limiting Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) to 150 pages and Environmental Assessments (EA) to 75 pages, are reflected in the new proposed rule.
Among other changes to NEPA, the proposed rule restores provisions removed in 2020 and adds new provisions to ensure that the impacts of proposed projects on historic and cultural resources are considered. For example, the proposed rule would add to the factors agencies need to consider when determining the appropriate level of NEPA review “the degree to which the proposed action may adversely affect unique characteristics of the geographic area such as historic or cultural resources, Tribal sacred sites, parkland, and various types of ecologically sensitive areas.” In addition, the proposed rule would remove language from the 2020 reforms that could have limited agencies from gathering more update information to analyze the effects of proposed actions, noting that “in the context of analyzing historical, cultural, or biological effects, survey work is often revisited and reassessed periodically, and an agency should not be required to rely on outdated data.”
The proposed rule is open for public comment through Friday, September 29, 2023. The ACRA Government Relations Committee is reviewing the proposed rules. If you have comments you would like to share with the Committee to inform ACRA’s comments back to CEQ, please send them to email@example.com.