Congress returns facing deadlines on spending, farm bill & more. Where MO & KS reps stand

For five weeks the U.S. Capitol has been used by the tourists who stream through the building every day, not for any legislative business.

That changes as the Senate returns to Washington after a five week August break. The House returns next week.

Lawmakers come back just in time for a battle over spending that could risk a government shutdown on October 1.

But spending bills aren’t the only deadline Congress faces. The farm bill expires at the end of September, as does the current authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration. And Congress needs to iron out a deal on defense spending, which is separate from the other spending bills.

The Senators from Missouri and Kansas have their hands in each of the important items.

Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, is on the Senate Agriculture committee, which writes the farm bill. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, is on the Senate Commerce committee, which is focused on making sure the FAA is reauthorized. And both Sens. Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt, Missouri Republicans, are working to make sure they get their priorities into the defense spending bill.

“That includes fighting to ensure that his important amendments that strip woke politics out of the military will move forward in the NDAA, advocating for farmers and ranchers in the upcoming farm bill, and reducing wasteful government spending,” said Chris Nuelle, Schmitt’s communications director.

Spending bills

The real conflict on the spending bills is between the Senate and the House.

During the negotiation over the debt limit, when Congress narrowly avoided default on the country’s debt, Democrats agreed to caps on most of its discretionary spending — that’s basically the money the government spends outside of big programs like Medicare and Social Security.

The Senate passed 12 appropriations bills out of committee with bipartisan support before the break. Those bills capped spending at the level agreed in the debt limit deal. They’re on track to pass the Senate this month.

But the House, which doesn’t come back for another week, is in the middle of a battle between hard-line conservatives and the rest of the Republican caucus over spending.

The hardliners want to push for spending cuts beyond what the Biden administration and House leaders agreed to in the debt limit deal, as they attempt to rein in the national debt, which ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the federal government spends the majority of its money on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that means any significant cuts to spending would jeopardize popular funding for things like veterans benefits, housing programs, infrastructure spending and food assistance.

The House generally follows an unwritten rule that a bill can only pass if it can clear the chamber with sole support of the majority party. That means if the House passes spending bills, Speaker Kevin McCarthy doesn’t want to rely on any Democratic votes to get it to clear the chamber. Because the Republican majority in the House is really small — just 10 more Republicans than Democrats — a handful of Republicans can block the process if they don’t get their way.

Already, hardline conservatives have said they are willing to risk a government shutdown if they don’t get increased spending cuts. Rep. Eric Burlison, a Missouri Republican, is a newly christened member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus and is among the lawmakers pushing for more spending cuts.

In light of the looming battle, the White House has already asked Congress to pass a bill temporarily extending the current spending levels until they can reach an agreement, which would avoid a shutdown.

FAA Reauthorization

The current authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration runs out at the end of September. The law lays out the responsibilities of the FAA, including the staffing levels for air traffic controllers, who are vital for plane travel and the mandatory retirement age of pilots, which is currently 65.

And while the House has already passed its version of the bill, the Senate version has gotten stuck in the committee amid disagreements over how many hours pilots need to train to keep their certification and whether to make changes to Washington’s Reagan National Airport.

Currently, pilots need 1,500 hours of training before they’re allowed to fly a commercial plane. There are requirements for what those training miles need to look like — some need to be cross country, some need to be at night and they need to be in different planes. Pilots can count 100 miles in a flight simulator as part of their miles toward the certificate.

Because of the ongoing national pilot shortage, some lawmakers want to allow pilots to use 150 miles from a flight simulator toward the certificate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, doesn’t like the provision and, since he holds significant power in the Democratic caucus, it’s held up the deal.

There is also a holdup over whether or not to add more long distance flights at Washington’s Reagan National Airport — the airport that’s most convenient for people who live in the city (and the lawmakers who have to catch flights most Thursday and Friday afternoons).

Right now, most nonstop flights out of Reagan are capped at 1,250 miles — that stops right around Wichita. There are a few exceptions — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin and San Juan — but those exceptions have limits to how many flights can operate as well.

It’s set up a battle between those pushing for more direct flights (which would be convenient for lawmakers who frequently have to travel to Washington) and those who say increasing direct flights at Reagan will remove flights from other airports like Kansas City and Wichita, while causing more delays at the already heavily trafficked Reagan airport.

Lawmakers who represent Kansas and Missouri have generally opposed the attempts to add more flights at Reagan because they’re concerned about how it would affect local flights.

Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who authored the House version of the FAA reauthorization bill and is a pilot, is attempting to make sure the bill has benefits for general aviation pilots — people who fly small private airplanes.

Farm Bill

Over the August recess, lawmakers held roundtable discussions with farmers to see what they hope to get in this year’s Farm Bill.

That’s bad news for anyone who wants a Farm Bill passed by the end of September, when the old one expires.

A draft for the new bill doesn’t even exist yet.

Most of the provisions in the farm bill will keep going even after the deadline, and Congress can pass legislation keeping any “orphan” provisions going until lawmakers pass a new bill. But it’ll likely be months, at best, before a new bill makes it out.

The majority of spending in the farm bill goes toward nutrition programs — like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be known as food stamps. Lawmakers want to keep the total amount of money they spend on the farm bill the same, but they also want to update commodity prices — the amount the government says a crop like corn, sorghum or wheat costs for their benefit programs — from the current 2012 levels to amounts that are more reflective of current prices.

That’ll cost more, which would mean cuts in other parts of the bill. Democrats want to preserve funding levels for nutrition assistance programs, which means tough negotiations are ahead on where to spend federal money when it comes to farming and nutrition.

Marshall has said his top priority is protecting crop insurance in the bill, but his office is also looking to make a series of small tweaks that could either make the process easier for farmers to get federal benefits or help cut spending in the bill.

One flashpoint Democrats thought was already done because of an agreement in the debt limit negotiations — work requirements for people who receive SNAP benefits. But Republicans have indicated they might still seek stricter requirements.

Money for national defense

Both the House and Senate have passed their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, which means it’s in something called a “conference committee” where both chambers iron out their differences to pass a compromise bill.

That compromise will be difficult.

Members of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus in the House added several amendments that injected partisan conflicts over things like diversity initiatives and abortion access into the spending bill. One amendment added language to prevent the military from paying expenses for service members who travel to get an abortion because they are based in states, like Missouri, where the procedure is illegal.

The Senate’s version of the bill passed with bipartisan votes, which is a necessity for most bills to clear the chamber. But their version also touched on some of those cultural battles. Schmitt secured a provision in the bill to audit the diversity office in the Pentagon.

Hawley will also be interested in negotiations as they unfold. He’s hoping the final bill keeps funding for the cleanup of nuclear material at Jana Elementary in St. Louis.

Correction: This article originally misstated how long Congress has been in recess.