The month of March blows in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
August, 2021 has that beat.
This month blew in like Cerberus and blew out like the Minotaur.
Two stories eclipsed all others in Washington at the end of August. Hurricane Ida lashed the Gulf Coast and then churned through the south. Staying on message, the remnants of Ida will eventually drench an already sodden Washington mid-week.
Afghanistan is Afghanistan as the U.S. departs.
So, we take an examination of these two issues and how they will resonate in the coming weeks on Capitol Hill.
It’s possible there could be a demand for additional federal spending from Congress to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Ida if the damage is as bad as anticipated.
There is a short-term and long-term equation here.
The first question involves immediate need and if FEMA’s coffers are flush enough with cash to help.
The answer to the first question is yes.
For the initial aftermath of Ida, FEMA will pull money from the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) or “Durf” in Congressional parlance.
A person walks past debris on the sidewalk after Hurricane Ida passed through on Aug. 30, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane yesterday in Louisiana and brought flooding and wind damage along the Gulf Coast. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Fox is told that as of Aug. 26, the DRF has an unobligated balance of $37.3 billion. The unobligated DRF base is $4.2 billion. So, there’s a grand total of about $41 billion in the bank to deal with what FEMA needs to address the immediate need.
That wasn’t always the case at FEMA. In September 2011, FEMA’s assets waned as Hurricane Irene threatened the eastern seaboard. Because Congress hadn’t injected FEMA with a fiscal booster shot, the agency foraged for loose, federal change. A similar scenario unfolded when Hurricane Katrina flattened New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the summer of 2005. Lawmakers were away for the August Congressional recess when Katrina hit. FEMA’s funds dwindled. Both the House and Senate broke their respites for emergency sessions in the middle of the night in early September that year to approve extra dollars for FEMA.
But the DRF is in good shape now.
The second question is what Congress may need to do to address long-term impacts from Ida.
Twelve annual spending bills fund the federal government. Congress routinely approves a 13th or 14th “supplemental” bill to deal with natural disasters or war. That could be the case this time around.
Don’t forget, there are three major legislative trains leaving the Congressional station in September. Lawmakers must fund the government by Sept. 30. It’s likely this will be a “Continuing Resolution,” known as a “CR.” A CR is where lawmakers renew all the old funding for a short period at the same spending levels as the previous fiscal year.
Lawmakers could latch additional disaster funding onto the CR. In fact, money to help with Ida could help Congress grease the skids to approve an interim spending bill and, simultaneously, raise the debt ceiling. Democrats could rail against Republicans who oppose upping the debt ceiling – and also reject emergency funding to cover damage from Ida if it impacts their states/districts.
It’s also possible lawmakers could hook some of the money for Ida to the bipartisan infrastructure bill, or, the $3.5 trillion social spending bill. One could see calls for specific spending projects to cover damaged dams, levies, and bridges in the infrastructure package. Or, lawmakers could stuff additional social policy provisions to deal with housing and health, tied to the storm, into the $3.5 trillion bill.
Taliban fighters wave from the back of a pickup truck, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Many Afghans are anxious about the Taliban rule and are figuring out ways to get out of Afghanistan. But it’s the financial desperation that seems to hang heavy over the city. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi)
However, it’s more likely that lawmakers make the first down payment on the storm in the CR come later in September. The region could require additional funds when Congress writes an omnibus spending bill to avoid a government shutdown in November or December.
Now, a shift to Afghanistan. More specifically, the politics of the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is threatening to deploy a rarely successful parliamentary tool to force the House to consider legislation on Afghanistan.
The House of Representatives met Tuesday for a brief, pro forma session. This is where the body usually just gavels in and gavels out after a few seconds.
Still, Republicans made a point of going to the floor and demanded Democrats take up a bill crafted by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. It would require the Pentagon to provide an accounting to Congress of evacuees, those left in Afghanistan as well as military equipment. The bill includes a provision that could urge the U.S. not to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
The chances of the House considering the legislation were virtually nil. Such efforts during a pro forma session are sometimes essentially stunts by the minority to generate attention on a given issue. Democrats raised cane with the GOP when they were in the majority and Republicans refused to bring up certain bills during pro forma sessions some years ago. The same is true now. The majority controls the floor.
That said, Republicans are playing a bit of a longer game here.
Republicans are going to try to get the Gallagher bill on the floor in September, via a different, parliamentary gambit. The GOP is drafting what’s called a “discharge petition” for a “rule.” It would mandate the House consider the Gallagher bill under a certain set of terms, e.g. – the “rule.” A “rule” is essential in this case because it dictates how the House will consider the actual bill – if Republicans are successful.
Discharge petitions are a parliamentary device for members to go over the heads of leadership and put a bill on the floor. That said, discharge petitions are rarely successful. The last one which worked came in 2015 on renewing the Export-Import Bank. Prior to that, you have to go back to early 2002.
The trick for a discharge petition is that advocates of a given measure need 218 signatures to put it on the floor. That’s a hard 218, regardless of the size of the House. The House membership currently stands at 432 with three vacancies. Moreover, members must come to the floor and physically sign the discharge petition. That could be another hurdle to clear since many members on both sides have not been coming to Washington and have voted remotely.
Republicans really can’t do anything about this right away. The House is out of session for legislative business until September 20. Fox is told that Republicans will start signing the discharge petition on September 21. The current breakdown is 220 Democrats to 212 Republicans. So, the GOP will need assistance from at least six Democrats if they’re going to hit their goal of 218 signatures.
That said, if Republicans do get the signatures they need, they’re in business to go around the leadership and put the Gallagher bill on the floor. Fox is told GOPers aim to sign on Tuesday, September 21. If and when Republicans garner enough signatures, they must wait two days until the discharge petition is ready on the floor. That would mean the earliest the House could consider this bill is Thursday, September 23.
But, they must get the signatures first.
Note, that there are politics in this. Republicans will use the reluctance of some vulnerable Democrats who decline to sign as a weapon against them in 2022.
Also, even if Republicans did get the Afghanistan bill through the House, no one knows its fate in the Senate. Democrats control the process there. And it’s likely that any such bill would face a filibuster. Sixty votes are necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.
August was a challenging month in Congress.
Ida and Afghanistan are far from over. Looming are work on infrastructure, social spending, avoiding a government shutdown and the debt ceiling.
Cerberus and the Minotaur were two of the most feared beasts in Greek mythology. But they were nothing compared to Typhon, the “father of all monsters.” Typhon was so fearsome he would often materialize with an accompanying thunderstorm.
If August came in like Cerberus and went out like the Minotaur, it’s quite possible September will come in and go out like Typhon.