09/08/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Welcome Back, Congress! Here Are 15 Issues Awaiting Your Return

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Welcome Back, Congress!

Congress returns from a five-week recess on Monday with many issues to tackle -- from escalating global tensions to domestic challenges relating to jobs, the economy, immigration and even the Constitution before Election Day. However, they will be racing against the clock. With elections only two months away, they will soon be heading home to campaign!

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that the Senate will be in session (including weekends) until Sept. 23, when they will adjourn again until after Election Day. The House is scheduled to be in session Sept. 8-19, and Sept. 29-Oct. 2nd.

Here are 15 issues on their agenda. On your mark, get set, go!

#1 Another Shutdown?

Remember last year's government shutdown? (Of course!) Once again, Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution to fund programs and to keep the federal government operating past the end of this fiscal year, Sept. 30.

The Dec. 2013 budget deal set spending levels for the federal government at a little over $1 trillion. The appropriations process requires the House and Senate to divvy up that amount. However, to date, the House has passed seven of the 12 annual appropriations bills, while the Senate has yet to pass one. It's unlikely that the House and Senate will complete passage of the bills on time. If Congress fails to appropriate, then a Continuing Resolution is the only way to keep the government operating past Sept. 30. (See which appropriations bills have been passed.)

#2 Reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank

The Export-Import Bank assists in financing the export of US goods and services to international markets through direct loans, loan guarantees, as well as special financing programs. Congress must decide whether to reauthorize the bank by Sept. 30th.

The Ex-Im Bank has supported 205,000 jobs in FY 2013 and financed a total of $6 billion in small business exports, according to the Ex-Im Bank's Chairman Fred Hochberg. In an open letter to Congress, more than 850 business organizations warned that "failure to reauthorize Ex-Im would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of other governments' far more aggressive export credit programs...American companies would be put at a unique disadvantage in global markets, resulting immediately in lost sales and lost jobs." However, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) expressed opposition to reauthorizing the Bank, arguing that it provides services that can be offered by the private sector.

#3 Authorizing Military Force Against Terrorist Groups

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) will introduce legislation this week "authorizing the use of military force against international terrorist groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda and its affiliates, like al Nusra, Ansar al Sharia, al Shabaab and Boko Haram, while encouraging close coordination with NATO and regional allies on any action." According to Congressman Wolf, "the motive behind the bill is to end any ambiguity about the President's authority -- or the Congress' support -- for a US-led international coalition to disrupt and eliminate ISIS and al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups from committing genocide." (Weigh in on his draft bill.)

Meanwhile, air operations in Iraq continue in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their fight with terrorists from ISIL, and to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqi civilians and protect US personnel and facilities. Last week, President Obama authorized the Dept. of Defense to provide the Dept. of State 350 additional military personnel to protect US diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad, Iraq.

#4 Unaccompanied Children at the Border

More than 66,000 unaccompanied children have arrived at our border in FY 2014, according to US Customs and Border Patrol. The House passed a Supplemental Appropriations bill (HR 5230), a $694 million border proposal to address the "humanitarian crisis at our southern border." It includes $405 million for the Dept. of Homeland Security to boost border security and law enforcement activities and $22 million to accelerate judicial proceedings for immigrants. (The funding in the legislation is fully offset through cuts and rescissions of existing funds within various federal agencies.)

President Obama opposes the House measure and has threatened to veto the bill. The President requested $3.7 billion to address the crisis, while the Senate's proposal (S 2648) -- which failed to advance to a vote -- would provide $2.73 billion.

#5 "You've Got Mail!" Postal Service Reform

In August, the US Postal Service reported a two percent revenue increase -- but a $2.0 billion loss in the third quarter -- and announced plans to cut 15,000 jobs and consolidate 82 mail-processing centers in 2015.

In response, 50 Senators sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee leadership urging them to block additional Postal Service cutbacks in appropriations legislation that would be introduced to fund the government and avoid a shutdown -- and to block for one year any Postal Service plans to consolidate more mail-processing facilities. Instead, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman urged his colleagues to enact comprehensive postal reforms "before it's too late."

  • Postal Reform Act in the Senate (S 1486): -- Bipartisan -- Accomplishes three overarching goals: reduce operating costs; modernize its business model; and innovate to generate new revenue, according to bill sponsors. Passed by Committee on Feb. 6, 2014, but has yet to be considered by the full Senate.
Both the Senate and House versions would save $17 billion over ten years. However, the House version focuses on reducing operation costs, including reducing health and life insurance premium contributions ($2 billion) and eliminating the free and reduced-rate mail ($1 billion). The Senate version instead raises nearly $16 billion from a 4.3 percent stamp price increase.

#6 The Ferguson Aftermath

In August, President Obama announced that the Justice Department has opened an independent federal civil rights investigation into the death of Michael Brown: "They are on the ground and, along with the FBI, they are devoting substantial resources to that investigation." On Sept. 3, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon lifted the State of Emergency he declared on Aug. 16 in response to the "violent unrest" in Ferguson.

In response to the situation in Ferguson, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) will introduce a bill limiting a Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement:

  • Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act: Would "end the free transfers of certain aggressive military equipment to local law enforcement and ensure that all equipment can be accounted for," according to the bill sponsor, Rep. Henry "Hank" Johnson (D-GA). The bill targets a Pentagon surplus program that transfers military equipment like mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles to local governments, including MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles.

A "Dear Colleague" letter from Rep. Johnson stated: "Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M16s. Unfortunately, due to a Department of Defense (DOD) Program that transfers surplus DOD equipment to state and local law enforcement, our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces."

#7 Hamas and Israel

On Sept. 9, the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade will hold a hearing on Hamas. According to the Subcommittee Chairman, "the purpose of this hearing is to allow Members to take an in-depth look at the financing capabilities of Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization."

While we expect additional legislation to be introduced, here are some proposals already pending before Congress:

#8 Ukraine and Russia

President Obama met with NATO allies last week to finalize sanctions across Russia's financial, energy and defense sectors and "strongly support President Poroshenko's efforts to pursue a peaceful resolution to the conflict in his country," including the cease-fire.

Already, the Obama Administration has committed $60 million in support for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MOD), State Border Guard Service and the National Guard, as well as meals ready-to-eat, body armor, radios, vehicles, thermal vision devices, medical supplies, explosive ordinance disposal robots, uniforms, and individual tactical gear.

We can expect further proposals in Congress, possibly from Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who along with Lindsey Graham (R-SC), announced they are "deeply concerned" that the cease-fire could "saddle Ukraine with a debilitating frozen conflict that amounts to Transnistria in eastern Ukraine." "If history teaches us anything," they explained, "it is that when people who believe in the rule of law and democracy give way to the dictates of thugs, it always gets worse."

Here are a few bills already introduced in Congress:

  • NATO Alliance Recognition and Promotion Act (HR 4346): -- Bipartisan -- "Encourages enhanced security cooperation with America's European allies and the continued enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization," according to bill sponsors. (And S 2283 in the Senate.)
  • Forging Peace Through Strength in Ukraine and the Transatlantic Alliance Act (HR 4433): -- Bipartisan -- Would condemn Russian aggression and illegal annexation of Crimea, while also seeking to reassure NATO allies and promote closer military cooperation with Ukraine," according to bill sponsors.
  • Report on military assistance to Ukraine (S 2555): -- Bipartisan -- Expresses the sense of Congress that the President, working with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, should provide the armed forces of Ukraine with appropriate non-lethal military assistance and military training support requested by the government of Ukraine. Directs the Secretary of Defense (DOD), every 180 days until Jan. 31, 2017, to report to Congress regarding military assistance to Ukraine.

#9 The Benghazi Select Committee

A House Resolution (HRes 567) authorized and directed a Select Committee to conduct a full and complete investigation and study of the events surrounding the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi and issue a final report of its findings to the House. Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC), chairman of the committee, announced that the Committee would hold its first public hearing on Sept. 14th.

Many are concerned with the slow progress of the committee's investigation, which was authorized in May. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee already concluded that there was no deliberate wrongdoing by the Obama administration in the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans:

"This report shows that there was no intelligence failure surrounding the Benghazi attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans. Our investigation found the Intelligence Community warned about an increased threat environment, but did not have specific tactical warning of an attack before it happened, Americans which is consistent with testimony that the attacks appeared to be opportunistic. It also found that a mixed group of individuals including those associated with Al-Qaeda, Qadafi loyalists and other Libyan militias participated in the attack. Additionally, the report shows there was no "stand down order" given to American personnel attempting to offer assistance that evening, and no American was left behind," according to the Ranking Member of the Intelligence Committee, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD).

The Intelligence Committee's bipartisan report, adopted unanimously on July 31, 2014, is pending review by the intelligence agencies for declassification.

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) proposed a similar investigation in the Senate.

#10 Government Surveillance

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in support of his bill, which would end the automatic bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency:

  • USA Freedom Act (S 2685): -- Bipartisan -- "Would restore Americans' privacy rights by ending the government's dragnet collection of phone records and requiring greater oversight, transparency, and accountability with respect to domestic surveillance authorities," according to the bill sponsors. Bans bulk collection under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and other surveillance authorities, requires the government to narrow the scope of a search to a clearly defined "specific selection term," adds needed transparency and reporting requirements, and provides key reforms to the FISA Court.

The bill builds on the House version of the USA Freedom Act (HR 3361), which passed in May.

#11 Campaign Finance 2.0

Also in September, the Senate plans to vote on a Constitutional Amendment to reverse Supreme Court decisions related to campaign contributions like Citizens United v. FEC.

  • The Democracy for All Amendment (SJRes 19): "Would allow Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money, including so-called "Super PAC" independent expenditures, while giving states the same authority to regulate campaign finance at their level," according to the amendment sponsors.

In 1976, the Supreme Court held in Buckley v. Valeo that restricting independent campaign expenditures violates the First Amendment right to free speech. According to Amendment sponsors, "building on this flawed precedent, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations deserve the same free speech protections as individual Americans."

A Constitutional Amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate and the House. If it clears those hurdles, it would then have to be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures in order to actually be enacted.

#12 Refinancing Student Loans

The Senate is expected to vote again on the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act (S 2432), which failed to move forward last June. The bill enables students to refinance their loans, and lowers the loan rate by raising taxes on millionaires, according to the bill sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). "Allowing students to refinance their loans would put money back in the pockets of people who invested in their education." 

The Obama Administration strongly supports this bill: "The legislation would benefit an estimated 25 million Americans and save a typical borrower $2,000 over the life of his or her loan. It would strengthen the economy by offering relief to Americans who are working hard to pay back their student loans and launch careers, start families, or buy homes."

#13 The FY 2015 NDAA

Each year, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) specifies the budget and expenditures of the US Dept. of Defense. The House passed its version in May, which authorized $521.3 billion in spending for national defense and an additional $79.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), primarily in Afghanistan.

House and Senate staff from the Armed Services committees worked through recess to draft a compromise proposal in case the Senate is unable to pass its version of the bill:

  • NDAA in the Senate (S 2410): Provides $514 billion for national defense, including $496 billion for the Dept. of Defense base budget and $17.7 billion for national security programs. Specifically prohibits the US Air Force from retiring A-10 aircraft for one year, and would improve the prospects of competition for military space launch and help move the Pentagon away from using taxpayer dollars to purchase rocket engines from Russia, according to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

#14 Extending "Internet Tax Freedom"

The Internet Tax Freedom Act placed a moratorium on the ability of state and local governments to impose new taxes on Internet access or to impose multiple or discriminatory taxes on e-commerce, since it was first enacted in 1998. It's scheduled to expire on Nov. 1 unless Congress takes action.

The House passed the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (HR 3086), a permanent extension on July 15th. Meanwhile, the Senate is considering whether to pass its version of the bill alone (S 1431) or as a legislative package for the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to collect sales tax for online purchases:

  • Marketplace and Internet Tax Fairness Act (S 2609): -- Bipartisan -- Would allow states to collect sales taxes from out-of-state retailers. (Currently, states cannot enforce the collection of sales tax from retailers that do not have a physical presence in the state.) And would extend the Internet Tax Freedom law for 10 years.

#15 "Obamacare" and Small Businesses

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy intends to bring a bill to a vote to address the "devastating consequences Obamacare has had for small businesses and their employees." He cited a recent non-partisan government analysis that found two-thirds of all small businesses will face increases in monthly premiums -- affecting 11 million Americans -- as a direct result of the law.

House Republican leaders plan to bring this bill to a vote in September:

  • Employee Health Care Protection Act (HR 3522): According to the bill sponsor, Congressman Bill Cassidy, (R-LA), it "is meant to do one thing -- provide relief to American workers and ensure that the American people can keep the health care plans they like."

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