By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU

January 2022 marks the start of a new year and the midpoint of the 117th Congress. The second session of any Congress presents challenges and hurdles that legislators and the administration will have to navigate to successfully complete action on important policy issues. The process and the politics are going to play a significant role this session, influencing both the policy agenda and policy outcomes.

A hefty legislative agenda greets federal legislators this week. Before we take a look at what is ahead and consider the legislative agenda, let’s take a moment to consider the basics of how Congress works.

Legislation Starts With an Idea

Legislation starts with an idea. Anyone who has identified a need, a problem or a solution relating to a federal policy or program can bring that idea to a legislator and advocate for it to be introduced as a bill. Ideas for bills or legislation often come from constituents, interest groups, businesses, staff or members themselves. Bills can be introduced by any member of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.

A Congress is a two-year period made up of two sessions. On average, in any given Congress, thousands of bills are introduced, and very few become law on their own. Sometimes, introduced bills are re-crafted as amendments to other bills and can find their way into law that way. Senators and Representatives have those two years of a Congress to navigate the legislative process and get their bills to the President’s desk.

As we know from our government classes or Schoolhouse Rock, the road for a bill to become a law is long and often rocky. For example, in the 116th Congress (2019–2020), 14,153 bills were introduced, but only 344 became public law.

Re-election and “Lame Duck Session” Factors

The second session of a Congress also marks the start of the election period for all members of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose two-year terms expire at the start of 2023, and for one-third of U.S. Senators who are in cycle (Senators are elected for a six-year term). The looming November election often leads to greater partisan divides and can make passing legislation even more challenging.

Each party, seeking to strengthen its position in advance of the election, will be extra mindful of the impact of giving the other party a “win” on legislation. The party in power will work hard to find ways to achieve “wins” and point to successes party members can talk about back home. As is often the case (and more so with the partisan divide at a high), this dynamic can result in few things getting passed and signed into law in the second session of a Congress.

The “lame duck” session is the period after the November election and before the end of the session. Lawmakers who will not be returning in the next Congress still represent their districts, make decisions and take votes on legislation. Sometimes, during a lame duck, the release of re-election pressure invites greater freedom for compromise and agreement. According to a Pew Research Center report, the lame duck session of the 116th Congress was relatively productive, with 44 percent of public laws being passed during that post-election period. The dynamics of this lame duck are unpredictable and will depend a great deal on who holds or gains the majority in the House and Senate.

Plenty to Do

The House and the Senate are subject to different rules. The agenda in the House is controlled by the party with the most seats, and bills only need a simple majority to pass. In the Senate, while the agenda is also controlled by the majority party, to advance legislation, one needs a super-majority, or 60 votes, to end debate on a bill and advance it to a vote (i.e., overcome a filibuster). To date, the House has passed 379 bills while the Senate has advanced 147. So far, the 117th Congress has produced 81 public laws.

As the second session of the 117th Congress begins, the Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats have important legislation they would like to pass including voting rights protections and filibuster reform in the Senate. Most Democrats have not given up hope that they can also pass the budget reconciliation bill—known as Build Back Better—though that legislation is on hold, and it may have to be substantially reworked in order to advance.

This week, all eyes are on the Senate, and rule change and voting rights will be the main events. Prospects for passage remain low, but Democrats are committed to beginning debate and calling for votes on both proposals.

There is plenty more to do. Congress must complete action on the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY’22) appropriations bills. While there have been promising reports that the “four corners” (the House and Senate Committee Chairs from both parties) have begun discussions, the election year politics will play an outsized role in their negotiations. Also, during this second session, lawmakers will have to tackle the Fiscal Year 2023 (FY’23) appropriations bills. Normally, this process begins in early February when the President sends up a budget for consideration. This year, President Biden will send up his budget to Congress in mid-March, after the State of the Union speech, which is scheduled for Tuesday, March 1.

Where We Go From Here

Taking into account the process and this year’s politics, it becomes clear that the second session of the 117th Congress will be tough. Despite these challenges, AJCU will continue to advocate for our students and our institutions.

Keeping in mind the role that politics plays in policy-making, reviewing the legislative process and taking time to understand the landscape of “the Hill,” advocates can continue to make a case for policies that matter to their constituencies and continue to push for their agenda.

For AJCU, that means navigating the realities of the second session to the best of our ability and continuing to fight for increases to federal financial aid programs like the Pell Grant, Federal Work Study and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunities Grants in FY’22 and FY’23.

Where do we go from here? Onward.