House Democrats in 2020 plan to pass legislation on top party priorities like health care, infrastructure and climate as well as more under-the-radar subjects like modernizing Congress and redistricting — all while trying to fully fund the government on time for the first time in 24 years, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said.
The No. 2 Democrat, who is in charge of the floor schedule, outlined his legislative priorities for the year in an interview with CQ Roll Call. The aforementioned issues were among a long list that Hoyer said Democrats plan to pursue in the second session of the 116th Congress. Others the Maryland Democrat mentioned include education, taxes, the annual defense and intelligence authorizations, and reauthorizations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and National Flood Insurance Program.
Many of those issues, like health care and climate, will follow up on legislative efforts Democrats started last year after they took back the House majority.
“We got done what we said we were going to get done,” Hoyer said. “I think we had a very successful year. Now, one successful year doesn’t make a successful Congress. And we mentioned some of the things that we need to get done.”
One thing Democrats still want to get done on health care is legislation on surprise billing, in which patients are charged out-of-network prices for services they thought were in-network. The House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees have competing plans.
In the spending deal Congress passed in December, lawmakers only extended funding for several expiring health care programs through May 22 — pressuring themselves to pass a comprehensive measure addressing surprise billing and prescription drug pricing by Memorial Day.
Hoyer said it’s “possible” the House could act on surprise billing legislation before May but noted that leadership hasn’t set a time frame. Democrats passed HR 3 in December to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, but they may have to follow up, he said.
The House will also pursue legislation to strengthen the 2010 health care law, Hoyer said.
“We’ve already passed bills on protecting preexisting conditions, but that was a very high priority for us, and we may do something else,” he said.
Surprise billing, prescription drug prices and preexisting conditions are the “big” health care issues Democrats will be focused on this year, Hoyer said, but he also mentioned maternal mortality rates and youth vaping. He didn’t rule out other topics, including reinsurance and subsidies to make health care more affordable.
Infrastructure with offsets
Infrastructure was among the top three issues that Democrats campaigned on in 2018. After an effort with President Donald Trump on a $2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan blew up, Democrats want to move ahead without him.
“We’re gonna have to figure out how to pay for it on our own,” Hoyer said. “That’ll be tough, but we’re going to work on that. And I’m hopeful that we’ll do that relatively early in the year, certainly before May.”
While Hoyer said Democrats would welcome Republicans to that effort, he thinks they’re “politically afraid.” The politics aren’t much easier for Democrats, who will be out on a limb supporting revenue increases to pay for a plan with little chance of enactment.
“That’s a legitimate concern,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer hopes Democrats will be willing to take that risk and look for ways to pay for other bills. Democrats several times last year waived their “PAYGO” rule requiring legislation that increases the deficit to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases.
“My recommendation to our caucus is that, yes, we do it less because we need to be concerned about the deficit and the debt,” Hoyer said.
On infrastructure, decisions need to be made beyond paying for new spending that Democrats want to authorize. One is whether to package Transportation and Infrastructure Committee bills on infrastructure like highways, bridges and ports with education and housing infrastructure bills under the jurisdiction of other committees. Hoyer has advocated not merging the three, but no decisions have been made.
The proposals “will be focused on being environmentally sound and moving towards renewable, clean infrastructure construction and use,” Hoyer said.
Climate and redistricting
A broader climate plan from the Energy and Commerce Committee and other panels is also a priority, Hoyer said. Those committees will consider recommendations that the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis plans to submit in March.
“These will be real proposals that if [they] became law would accelerate and ensure our reaching by 2050 or earlier, if not carbon-free, a very radically reduced carbon imprint,” Hoyer said.
The House will also act this year on recommendations from the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, Hoyer said.
Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, who chairs the select panel, said Hoyer has been a “bullish, enthusiastic and an active participant” in discussing changes. The committee has reported out some recommendations and is considering others.
“All of it is in broad service of having the institution function on behalf of the American people,” Kilmer said. “Part of my admiration for Steny is that’s the mantra he brings to work every day.”
Just like with health care and infrastructure, House Democrats in 2020 want to do more on the third plank of their “For the People” 2018 campaign agenda: cleaner government.
Since the Senate has not acted on HR 1, Democrats’ government overhaul focused on campaign finance, voting and ethics, the House will break out at least one big piece of that bill and pass it as a stand-alone.
“I’m particularly interested in redistricting reform,” Hoyer said. “I’m very committed to trying to get legislation through that will require a fair redistricting process in every state.”
House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren told CQ Roll Call she introduced a stand-alone bill last year and is supportive of advancing such a measure through her committee but hasn’t identified a timeline. The California Democrat doesn’t know if Republicans would support that but said she hopes so because “it’s important for polarization in the country.”
Appropriations on time?
Unlike in 2019 when Congress spent weeks early in the year in a partial government shutdown, Democrats can get to work on their party priorities right away in 2020.
“We are here working on substance, other than trying to keep the government open,” Hoyer said.
After Democrats won the House majority in 2018, Hoyer made it a goal to pass all of the chamber’s fiscal 2020 appropriations bills during a four-week period in June. He held a series of meetings and calls with key players in early 2019, including top House and Senate appropriators, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to ensure the process went more smoothly than the fiscal 2019 one that led to the shutdown.
By the end of June, the House passed 10 of the 12 fiscal 2020 bills, which accounted for 96 percent of funding. Hoyer blamed the Senate for the continuing resolutions that Congress relied on until it struck its broader December deal.
This year, Hoyer hopes the government is fully funded before the fiscal 2021 year begins Oct. 1; that hasn’t happened since 1996. He again has set aside the month of June to pass appropriations bills through the House and is confident they can at least pass the same 10 measures as last year if not all 12.
One thing that will make the fiscal 2021 process easier than the fiscal 2020 process is that topline spending levels for defense and nondefense spending were agreed to as part of a budget deal passed in July, Hoyer said. The timing of that deal helped delay the Senate from advancing its fiscal 2020 bills, and Hoyer hopes senators will start the process sooner so the chambers can resolve differences and have the president sign them before Sept. 30.
“They have to have the will to do it,” Hoyer said of the Senate.
Hoyer said he’s recommended that the Appropriations committees, in deciding fiscal 2021 subcommittee allocations, give each of the 12 panels their proportional share of the $2.5 billion increase for defense and $2.5 billion increase to nondefense accounts from fiscal 2020 levels.
“It’s not a big enough number really to cause a major problem,” he said.
Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey told CQ Roll Call she agrees with that approach. As for Hoyer’s goal to get all fiscal 2021 bills done on time, the retiring New York Democrat said it depends on whether the White House is a willing partner.
Hoyer “is the cheerleader,” Lowey said.
Last year’s budget deal should also help the defense authorization bill advance earlier in 2020. Hoyer said he wants to bring it to the floor in May, two months earlier than last year.
Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith told CQ Roll Call he’s aiming for a late April markup, which he said will focus on making the Pentagon more effective, encouraging competition and “getting the most bang for the buck.” The debate the House engaged in last week about “reasserting Article 1 congressional authority over war-making” is likely to resurface again in the NDAA, the Washington Democrat said.
“Steny has done a great job running the floor,” Smith said. “And it’s helped us get our job done and pass a lot of meaningful legislation.”
Mary Ellen McIntire and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
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