Five Facts on Must-Pass Bills in the Lame-Duck Session

With Election Day behind us, Congress still has several pieces of “must-pass” legislation that need to be completed before the end of this year and likely in the post-election lame duck session. Here are five facts on “must pass” bills and why, sometimes, they still don’t pass.


  1. There are several types of “must-pass” bills.

The official website for the U.S. Senate defines a must pass bill as “a vitally important measure that Congress must enact, such as annual money bills to fund operations of the government.” Must-pass bills are usually recurring legislation, but have in recent years been held up by members of Congress who want to force leadership to address other policy priorities. For example, in 2019 the federal government shut down for 35 days after President Trump and Senate Republicans refused to support an appropriations bill for the 2019 fiscal year that did not include $5.7 billion in federal funds for a U.S.- Mexico border wall. After weeks of negotiating with the Democratic-controlled House, the president signed a stopgap measure that reopened the federal government for three weeks before a final appropriations bill passed that included $1.4 billion for border wall funds.

  1. December 11 is the new deadline for Congress to pass the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the operations of the federal government.

Congress must pass a series of appropriations bills which grant federal funds to specific government departments, programs, and agencies. The 12 bills cover all areas of federal government spending – ranging from defense to agriculture, to the legislative branch – and must be passed by October 1st the beginning for the fiscal year. If the bills are not passed by the deadline, they can be extended through a continuing resolution, which can even extend into the next calendar year. Since 1977 Congress has passed the 12 appropriations bills by the October 1 deadline only four times. This year, on September 30, Congress passed a continuing resolution that extended funding for the government through December 11.

  1. Congress must pass the National Defense Authorization Act before the end of each calendar year.

The National Defense and Authorization Act (NDAA) establishes and authorizes the budget and expenditures of the Department of Defense. Unlike other federal departments, the Department of Defense requires an authorization act to be passed annually, in addition to the appropriations bill, and since the first one in 1961 Congress has passed an NDAA every year. The on-time deadline for the NDAAs is October 1 — the beginning of the fiscal year — but the real cutoff date is December 31, when many defense-related programs and activities run out of money.  This year, the House NDAA included a provision that would eliminate the names of former Confederate leaders from military bases, while the Senate bill originally did not. After the Senate agreed to include the provision, President Trump stated he would veto a bill that eliminated the Confederate names. Congress has yet to finalize an agreement.

  1. Congress periodically raises the debt ceiling to authorize the continued issuance of U.S. Treasury bonds and prevent the federal government from defaulting on its debt.

The debt ceiling was created in 1917 by Congress in an attempt to restrain federal spending by creating a legal limit on borrowing by the U.S. Treasury. Once the debt ceiling is reached, the Treasury cannot issue bills, bonds, or notes unless Congress votes to lift the borrowing limit. But in recent history the debt ceiling has been used by members of Congress as leverage to force action on other priorities. For example, when the U.S. approached the debt ceiling limit in 2013, a group of House Republicans stated they would raise it only if funding for the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) was removed from the federal budget. President Obama refused this demand, and after a 16-day government shutdown, costing the federal government billions of dollars, the Republicans ultimately backed down. Previous congressional brinksmanship over the debt ceiling in 2011 led rating agency Standard and Poor to downgrade the creditworthiness of the U.S. federal government debt for the first time in history. The last time Congress raised the debt ceiling was in July 2019 – after agreeing on a two-year budget deal – it does not expect to have to raise it again until July 2021.

  1. A new session of Congress can’t begin without votes for several leadership positions

On January 3, 2021 a new Congress will come into session. The first order on the floor in both chambers is a vote on leadership positions. In the House each party nominates a representative to serve as speaker and the chamber takes a roll-call vote, with an absolute majority needed to win. In the Senate the majority party selects the president pro tempore — which is often described as a largely “ceremonial” position — by passing a simple resolution. Although there are other leadership positions – such as majority and minority leaders – the speaker and the president pro tempore are the only offices included in the Constitution, and thus granted constitutional authority and a place in the presidential line of succession.


This article first appeared in Real Clear Policy


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