Federal Update: As Lame Duck Gavels In, New Administration Takes Shape

November 15, 2016

Transition is the word of the day in Washington, as leaders and officials, old and new, converge on the city to complete the work of the 114th Congress and begin planning for the 115th Congress and the Trump Administration.

On the Hill

Having put legislative business on hold in order to campaign, current members of Congress have returned to face a significant agenda for the lame-duck session. Funding for Fiscal Year 2017, which began October 1, has not yet been resolved with stopgap funding set to expire on December 9. With the prospect of controlling the White House, House, and Senate in the forefront of their minds, Republican leaders on the Hill have nonetheless indicated their hope to complete action on funding for agencies across the government before the end of this session. If they are successful in cobbling together a final omnibus bill based upon the appropriations process thus far, rather than choosing to fund the government by a continuing resolution until the new Congress is sworn in, that may be consequential for universities. Early work in both the House and Senate committees resulted in draft bills that would provide much better results for research accounts than a continuing resolution would provide. For example, the Senate’s committee measure would provide NIH with a $2 billion increase, and the House version would boost the agency $1 billion. Highly conscious of spending, conservative Republicans in the House and Senate are arguing to delay final consideration of funding levels until the new Administration is sworn in, presumably to dig deeper into the 2017 budget for potential cuts. Further complicating the appropriations process is jockeying by members on various policy riders that could be attached to any funding bills to address controversial issues from environmental protection and abortion to Iran Sanctions and the ACA.

Beyond the funding bill or bills in the lame duck, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated a specific interest in completing the 21st Century Cures Act, which could include a significant infusion of funding for biomedical research. The Cures bill that passed the House provided a new dedicated mandatory funding stream for NIH research as well as reforms to some FDA practices that have combined to attract bipartisan support. However, after the funding offsets from the original Cures bill were used to pay for last year’s budget agreement, it remains unclear to what extent a lame-duck version of Cures will be pared down and offer real increases to NIH. In the event a lame-duck Cures bill is favorable, passing that combined with funding the government through the appropriations process could potentially have significant positive effects for research universities heading into the New Year. We continue to work closely in Washington with peer institutions to steer our coalitions to push appropriations and Cures across the finish line. Today, one of those core coalitions—United for Medical Research—published an op-ed in support of lame-duck passage of Cures.

Other priority bills that Congress will work to complete include the annual authorization for the Department of Defense as well as a water resources bill.  Some members will also be pushing for extending certain tax provisions that expire this year, including some for alternative and other energy projects. In addition, members will work to push non-controversial bills across the finish line ahead of the start of a new Congress. 

The shape of the next Congress is also coming into focus during the lame duck. Republican members will convene today to elect their party leaders for next year, and Democrats have delayed their elections until after Thanksgiving. We are also seeing chairmanships beginning to shake out for the next Congress. Although Republican control did not shift in either chamber, retirements, term-limits in House chairmanships, and other changes will cause a cascade of changes in important committees. With the retirement of John Kline, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will have a new chair, likely Virginia Foxx (R-NC). Late last week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the longtime Democratic leader of the Judiciary Committee, announced he would take the ranking member post on the Appropriations Committee due to the retirement of Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). With this change, it appears likely that Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will stay as lead on the Senate education committee and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will stay on the Budget Committee. Other changes are sure to come in the weeks ahead of the beginning of the new Congress on January 3.

Presidential Transition

Over the weekend, President-elect Trump began to announce some key appointments for his Administration. To head his White House team, he tapped former RNC chair Reince Priebus as chief of staff and his campaign chief executive Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor. While Priebus is seen as an olive branch to the establishment wing of the Republican Party, Bannon, who headed Breitbart News before coming to the campaign, is known as a conservative firebrand more popular with the far right. In addition, Vice President-elect Mike Pence is now heading the transition team (a shift from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie), with additional details on key transition staff for various agencies and functions emerging. We expect the coming weeks to include announcements on Cabinet and other nominees. We are also seeing early, somewhat vague, details emerging on the President-elect’s policy priorities for his term. In some areas, it appears there is some evolution in his thinking – such as openness on preserving some parts of the ACA or a focus on undocumented aliens with a criminal history. That said, it is still very early and little is concrete.   

As always, we will remain in touch with developments. Please feel free to reach out to Kevin Casey (kevin_casey@harvard.edu), Suzanne Day (suzanne_day@harvard.edu) or Jon Groteboer (jon_groteboer@harvard.edu) on our Federal Relations team with any questions or comments.