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In contrast to the past two years, the 118th Congress is operating under a divided government, with Democrats in charge of the executive branch and the Senate, and Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives. These split-power conditions mean President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats will have a much more difficult time passing the bigger, bolder parts of their agenda, and will need to compromise with House Republicans to pass legislation.
With slim margins in both chambers, a key variable is whether the parties’ left and right flanks will cooperate with the moderates in their own and the opposing party, allowing leaders to propose legislation that can garner enough votes to become law. On the contrary, they may work to pass policies more closely aligned with their ideals, preferring nothing to what they would consider half a loaf. How these factors play out could be make-or-break scenarios for real progress on many important issues to park and recreation leaders.
Regardless of the amount of bipartisan momentum, Congress and the Biden administration will need to take on the following priorities.
Funding the Government
Congress aims to pass annual spending bills in advance of the start of each fiscal year on October 1. This rarely gets accomplished on time, and a continuing resolution is typically employed to keep the money flowing for a few months until a compromise can be made. Congressional leaders will aim to pass fiscal year 2024 and fiscal year 2025 appropriations bills during the 118th Congress.
The annual spending bill is a key measure for parks and recreation because it determines the amount of funding allocated to Land and Water Conservation Fund sub-programs, like the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program, green infrastructure programs, and health and wellness-related programs.
The past two years of spending bills also have contained community project funding measures, also known as earmarks, which are provisions sending money directly to projects in a given state or congressional district as requested by a member, rather than passing through the traditional federal agency process. This longstanding funding mechanism was nixed by Republicans in 2010, and it remains to be seen whether it will continue to be a part of the appropriations process in the 118th Congress.
Reauthorizing Programs in the Farm Bill
Every five years, Congress aims to pass a version of the farm bill, legislation that authorizes federal programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With the previous farm bill passed in 2018, Congress is set to take on this priority in 2023.
The most important of these programs for park and recreation professionals is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In past farm bills, Democrats have been supportive of maintaining current levels or increasing funding to SNAP, and Republicans have occasionally made efforts to cut the program, leading to gridlock in the negotiation process.
Recognizing their slim majority in the House and minority in the Senate, key Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee — the committee responsible for crafting the legislation — have already indicated they are not likely to attempt major changes to nutrition programs in this year’s farm bill and prefer to carry out an efficient and bipartisan process from the start.
Continuing to Implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in November 2021, provides the largest investment in our nation’s infrastructure in decades. The most significant piece of this legislation for parks and recreation is the bill’s tripling of funding to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund — the largest amount of federal funding allocated toward green infrastructure.
Now in the second year of the bill’s implementation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress remain focused on how to maximize the benefits of this investment and may enact tweaks to program guidance in the 118th Congress.
Implementing the Inflation Reduction Act
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August 2022, is the most comprehensive climate bill in U.S. history. While much of the legislation’s impact comes through changes in Internal Revenue Service code to enact climate-related tax incentives, the bill also provides grant funding that park and recreation departments can take advantage of. This includes $1.5 billion to USDA to fund urban forestry projects, $1.8 billion to the Department of Transportation to fund active transportation infrastructure, and $3 billion to EPA to fund air pollution mitigation efforts, including projects that address the urban heat island effect.
Federal agencies will be implementing first-year funding to these programs in 2023. House Republicans are primed to conduct heavy oversight over the bill’s programs, and some have indicated a desire to strip the bill’s provisions that they see as federal overreach. Without a majority in the Senate, however, it is unlikely that these efforts will be very successful.
Another important variable that will dictate Congress’ activities over the next two years is the looming presence of the 2024 Presidential Election. With top candidates already emerging, congressional leaders in both parties will be angling to get legislative and political wins that make their party’s candidates look good and the other party’s look bad. Fortunately for park and recreation professionals, our priorities are extremely bipartisan in nature, so we are unlikely to be swept up in the political maelstrom.
Mae Stevens is Senior Vice President at Banner Public Affairs, where she assists NRPA with legislative work.