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Normally, Washington is a pretty sleepy place a week before the election as the nation’s focus turns to the campaign trail. As we know, 2020 is not a normal year, and several major policy battles are still being waged, even as voting has already begun.
The main action is around an economic relief bill to extend unemployment insurance, provide relief for state and local governments, and aid small businesses. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin are trading proposals in the (slim) hopes of getting a bill passed before the Election. The main sticking point remains the overall price tag: Democrats want a package totaling $2.2 trillion, while Senate Republicans have pushed for a lower amount.
Even if Pelosi and Mnuchin strike a deal, it’s not clear what the Senate would do. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has said he would bring to the Senate floor a bill that was approved by the House and had the support of the White House. But he also has reportedly told the White House to hold firm on not agreeing to a deal. For their part, Senate Republicans brought a “skinny” $500 billion COVID relief bill to the floor last week, which Senate Democrats opposed, killing it. It is likely that any bill, if enacted, won’t happen until a lame-duck session after the election.
Meanwhile, the Senate is moving forward with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans voted unanimously to send her nomination to the full Senate Thursday, in a session that Democrats boycotted. The Senate is expected to vote on the nomination on Monday, which would enable Barrett to be seated before the election – and possibly vote on matters related to the election itself.
Speaking of the election, a record number of Americans have already cast ballots, either absentee or via early voting. As of Thursday, 45 million Americans had already voted; that number equals 33 percent of all the votes cast in the 2016 election. In Texas alone, the number of early votes is two-thirds the amount of all votes cast in 2016. Does this portend a record turnout overall, or is it a function of the pandemic prompting people to vote early? It’s hard to say, but all these absentee vote means that we probably won’t know who wins the White House, or control of the Senate, for a few days, if not longer.
Once the election is over (even if the counting isn’t), Congress still has a fairly large to-do list in a lame-duck session. The current funding agreement for the federal government expires on Dec. 11, meaning Congress and the White House need to extend it to avoid a government shutdown. Congress also needs to pass a Defense authorization bill, which they have done every year for the last half century. And a COVID relief package will need to be debated, assuming it doesn’t happen before the election.
There’s a fair chance that all of this – government funding, a defense bill and COVID relief – will be wrapped into a single massive bill. This is what DC folk call a “Christmas tree,” since it gives lawmakers the chance to exchange their “Yes” vote for getting leadership to attach their pet legislative projects onto the bill. This means anything could sneak into an end-of-year bill, including items not favorable to the CRM industry. Vigilance is key.
Naturally, the political environment in a lame-duck session will depend on the election’s outcome. If President Trump wins re-election and Republicans maintain control of the Senate, then Republicans have an incentive to “clear the decks” by passing legislation quickly so they can start a second Trump term with a clean slate.
On the other hand, if President Trump loses, will he and Senate Republicans try to push through as much legislation as they can before January? And will Democrats try to block everything, waiting for Joe Biden to enter the White House? It’s also entirely possible that a lame-duck session will happen in an environment when the election outcome isn’t even known, adding to the uncertainty.
No matter who wins, we expect the Trump administration to accelerate their regulatory reform. This could include further attempts to curtail NEPA, or even touch Sec. 106. If Biden wins, he could undo these regulations, and Democrats could use the Congressional Review Act to overturn them. But even if Democrats retake the White House, efforts to “streamline” regulations to speed up infrastructure projects could imperil Sec. 106.
The possibility of regulatory action post-election is just one of the trends that ACRA is following closely as we approach Election Day. In meetings last week with members of Congress and their staff, ACRA heard loud and clear that the future of preservation policy hinges a great deal on the outcome of the election. If Democrats win back the Senate, there will be new leadership and direction at every Committee. Regardless of who wins, there will be pressure on federal agencies to cut “red tape” in order to get people back to work. Does this mean that policymakers will try to exempt projects from Sec. 106? Anything is possible, which is why ACRA has been sending the clear message that Sec. 106 is a win-win for the economy and for protecting our heritage.
Regardless of who wins, the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis means the urgency among business of all sizes to get some relief from Washington will continue. Programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) help, but what’s really needed to get the economy moving again is a plan to combat COVID-19 and, ultimately, a vaccine. Putting the county’s physical and economic health back on track is something all sides should agree on.
Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. And make a plan to vote. If you need help with the last one, visit www.vote.org.
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