It’s been a tough year for passing new laws, in part due to the Senate’s new-found identity as a “legislative graveyard.”
There are just two days left in the 2010s, a decade that saw political polarization reach an all-time high and congressional gridlock become the norm. This year was a particularly tough one legislatively, in part due to the Senate’s new-found identity as a “legislative graveyard.”
Congress passed only 78 laws this year, putting the 116th Congress on track to be by far the least productive two-year term since at least 1973, according to GovTrack, an organization that tracks legislation.
But 2020 could be different. It is, after all, an election year.
Here are five key issues Congress will have on its plate in the coming weeks and months.
It’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. When 2020 kicks off, impeachment is going to be the major topic of discussion in Congress, as it has been for the last three months. The House formally voted to impeach President Trump on Dec. 18, passing two articles of impeachment charging him with abuse of power and obstruction for his conduct in the Ukraine scandal.
The process will move over to the Senate in the new year, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made it clear he has no intention of holding a serious or fair trial—as is required by the Constitution.
2. Surprise Billing
In a rare show of bipartisanship, both Democrats and Republicans appear ready to address the issue of surprise medical billing, which occurs when patients receive unexpected and costly medical bills after unknowingly seeing a provider outside their insurance network.
Leaders of key congressional committees announced a compromise proposal in early December that would prevent doctors from issuing surprise bills and create a system for resolving related billing disputes between those doctors and insurance companies. That deal, however, fell apart. It may be a few months before lawmakers take up the issue again.
3. Drug Prices
Until the impeachment saga began, perhaps no issue dominated the 2019 congressional agenda more than the surging cost of prescription drugs. In 2018, Americans spent $535 billion on prescription drug costs, a 50 percent increase since 2010, according to an estimate from the Altarum Institute.
On Dec. 12, the House passed H.R. 3, which would give Medicare the power to directly negotiate with drug companies to decide the prices of as many as 250 drugs each year; it would also offer those lower prices to Americans with private insurance. The bill appears dead on arrival in the Republican-led Senate, despite the fact that an October 2019 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 85 percent of Americans support allowing the federal government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies that would apply to both Medicare and private insurance.
With health care primed to play a key issue in November’s elections, it’s likely that the battle over prescription drug costs will continue well into 2020.
4. Domestic violence
Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the bipartisan Violence Against Women Act of 1994 to support and protect survivors of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault. Since then, the federal government has spent more than $8 million to help victims, and Congress has voted to reauthorize the law three times—in 2000, 2005, and 2013.
The law expired in February 2019, and the Democratic House quickly passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 by a vote of 263–158. The updated bill closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which currently allows people convicted of abusing or stalking their non-spouse partner access to firearms. Senate Republicans have balked at the bill for that reason, and the law still remains unauthorized, setting up another battle over the bill in 2020.
In 11 months, Americans will go to the polls to vote on whether President Trump should get a second term in office. If 2016 and 2018 are any indication, Trump is likely to ramp up his anti-immigrant rhetoric leading up to November’s elections, which could also affect two key pieces of legislation currently working their way through Congress.
The House recently passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would allow farmers to hire employees they need while providing undocumented farm workers with protections and a path to earn legal status in the United States. The bipartisan bill would provide much needed help to struggling farmers across the country, but Trump’s stance on immigration could put it in danger.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act would reform the legal immigration system by eliminating the per-country limits that cause backlogs in the employment-based immigrant visa system. The bill would also increase the cap on family-based immigrant visas. The House passed its version of the bill by a massive 365-65 margin in July, and the Senate is working on its own version of the legislation.
It remains to be seen if the two chambers will be able to come to a compromise in 2020 on this issue—and many others.