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Congress Is Running out of Time to Pass These Necessary Bills

Getty Images/Alex Wong

Just three days remain until the August recess, but Congress has lots of work left to do. Last Thursday, I explained how Congressional dysfunction was blocking the passage of some necessary legislation. Since then, the two sides have actually made some progress on two big issues, but the toughest one still remains.

The biggest breakthrough came when Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Joe Miller reached an agreement on a bill to address the Veterans Affairs scandal. The compromise would spend $17 billion over the next three years, much of it for veterans to seek non-VA care if they cannot see a VA doctor promptly or if they don’t live within 40 miles of a VA hospital. The bill also includes money to hire more doctors and nurses and give the VA secretary the authority to fire senior officials.

Most of the political press has greeted this bipartisan breakthrough with cheers, but it’s not clear that this legislation makes sense. Earmarking money to hire more medical personnel is undoubtedly important, but Phil Longman, who knows more about the VA system than almost anybody, told me recently that allowing veterans to seek non-VA care could undermine the system. Excellent VA hospitals, which already have a lack of patients, may be forced to close if veterans go elsewhere. The current deal only sets up a two-year pilot program, but Republicans will certainly look to extend it before it expires. As Longman warned, this legislation, which the House and Senate are expected to pass later this week, could be a “Trojan horse” for privatization.

The Senate is also expected to take up a House-passed bill to fill a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which finances road and mass transit projects. Despite coming to an agreement, Congress can’t celebrate. The House bill is a short-term patch that uses a spending gimmick to pay for it. The bill will prevent a funding gap in infrastructure projects, but it should not make lawmakers feel proud.

The most contentious issue on the docket is the border crisis. It’s hard to see how Democrats and Republicans will come to an agreement here. The GOP wants to change a 2008 U.S. human trafficking law to make it easier for border patrol to return unaccompanied minors to their home countries. Some on the right, like Senator Ted Cruz, have also proposed repealing Obama’s executive action that allowed children brought to the U.S. before 2007 to stay and work here legally. Democrats oppose both of those proposals. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has set up a vote on a bill that would provide $2.7 billion in emergency funds to address the crisis. Since it does not include reforms to the 2009 law or Obama’s executive action, Republicans are likely to filibuster it. Whatever the House eventually passes is likely to die in the Senate as well.

Is a breakthrough possible? Sure. Just a few days ago, the chances that Sanders and Miller would compromise over the VA legislation looked bleak. That could happen with the border crisis bill as well. But time is running out.

—Danny Vinik

Things to know:

ENTITLEMENTS: Trustees for the Social Security Trust Fund and Medicare's Hospital Insurance Trust Fund reported on the finances of each program. The costs have stabilized, but still pose a long-term fiscal problem. (Julie Rovner, NPR)

CLIMATE: Dina Cappiello examines how the U.S. has undermined its own progress cutting carbon pollution with coal exports reaching new heights. Coal exports may have wiped out the country's carbon reductions gained by switching from coal to natural gas. (Associated Press)

GUNS: A federal appeals court has upheld Florida's "docs v. glocks" law, restricting physicians from asking patients about gun ownership. Medical groups slammed the ruling and at least one is encouraging doctors not to heed it. (Orlando SentinelMiami New Times)

Things to read:

Take It Easy on Paul Ryan: Noah Smith thinks Ryan's critics don't appreciate what a huge shift his new poverty proposal signals. (Bloomberg View

Wonk WarRoss Douthat has had it with Jon Chait and his constant needling. Chait stands by his arguments, but allows that he's been a bit tough on Douthat, whom he describes as "one of my favorite opinion writers." (New York Times, New York Magazine

Red State, Dread State: Dan Diamond documents how the states shunning Obamacare's Medicaid expansion are the ones whose residents need it the most. (Advisory Board) 

One Argument for Legalized Prostitution: It would dramatically reduce HIV infection rates. Adrianna McIntyre explains. (Vox

Things to watch: 

Today and tomorrow, the EPA will hold public hearings across the country on its climate plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants. The EPA will hear comments from 1,600 people, with coal miners, environmentalists, and physicians all in attendance. The Federal Open Market Committee also meets today and tomorrow to decide monetary policy. Expect the taper to continue.

Things to read at QED:

Rebecca Leber takes you through the coal industry's long, hilariously misguided doomsaying about environmental regulation. Rebecca also explains a new White House report that finds that inaction on climate policy is extremely costly. Jonathan Cohn discovers an old e-mail that weakens the core argument in the latest lawsuits challenging Obamacare.