The Importance of the Congressional Calendar

Katina Slavkova | July 7, 2021

Halfway through its first session, the 117th Congress finds itself in familiar territory, one that past Congresses know all too well. The crush of ambitious and unfinished legislative business is threatening to overwhelm Capitol Hill’s notoriously tricky and fickle schedule. Call it the tyranny of the congressional calendar. Here we’ll consider the current state of play, what Congress has done historically, what this means for legislation under consideration, as well as the bigger-ticket items that could be President Biden’s legacy.

The Status of the Schedule:

Divining a schedule for Congress’s two chambers is always a tough balancing act for their respective leadership. But when you add the uncertainty of a global pandemic, the task becomes even more frustratingly fluid and unforgiving.

The office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whose responsibility it is to prepare the schedule for the House chamber, has already made two adjustments since the initial release. The situation over on the Senate side is even more opaque. At the risk of perpetuating Senate stereotypes, the upper chamber works in mysterious ways. It is not even clear that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has released a more formalized and updated schedule since a tentative one was announced in December 2020.

Amidst the uncertainty, however, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Congress is simply running out of legislative days to accomplish even its most fundamental tasks. One can’t argue with basic math!

Assuming that this version of Congress’s 2021 calendar remains unchanged, the House and Senate will be in session together for only two weeks between now and the beginning of the annual August recess. The next important benchmark is September 30 which marks the end of the federal government’s fiscal year and the perennial worry about timely appropriations. But even at that point, the two chambers will have added only two more weeks legislating together in Washington. From this July through the end of the first session of the 117th Congress this December, the House and Senate are scheduled to be both in session for a total of only ten more weeks.

How Typical is This?

This tightly compressed timeline has prompted calls by some Senators and outside observers to either shorten or cancel the August recess in order to tackle some of the legislative load. But an analysis going back to 1979 shows such calls to be both typical political rhetoric–and typically unheeded. Frankly, it’s not even clear that shortening or cancelling the August recess at this point will save the legislative calendar. Plus, as many Members of Congress would like to point out, the August “recess” is somewhat of a misnomer that wrongly implies a month’s long summer vacation. In fact, more often than not, the August calendar is as packed with congressional work, just not the legislating kind.

What Does This Mean for Legislation?

With so little time and so many items on Congress’s to-do list the remaining half of this year will most likely be a frenetic one. And most immediately, the month of July promises to bring a burst of legislative action on numerous fronts.

A big legislative lift for July will be the work on the annual appropriations bills. While no one should be under the illusion that Congress will wrap up funding work before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, the House appropriators are already hard at work. Their goal is to at least finish full committee markups of the 12 annual appropriations bills by mid-July. This timeline will prove too ambitious for their Senate counterparts, who are currently in recess until July 12 and have traditionally moved their bills later than the House.

This year’s hectic schedule has also affected congressional work on the must-pass annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). A variety of circumstances have conspired to delay the regular markup schedule for both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. This modified schedule almost certainly guarantees that a final defense policy bill will be signed only after the new fiscal year has begun. The Armed Services committees are also consumed by debates on overhauling how the military handles sexual assaults and other serious criminal cases. Major disagreements between the leadership of the two committees might further delay final passage of the NDAA if this policy priority is not addressed separately in standalone legislation.

What Does this Mean for Biden’s Legacy?

The most visible and high-stakes item on the legislative agenda that has animated both the White House and Congress since late March is the big infrastructure package. After a months-long negotiation marked by several twists and turns both sides seem to have moved towards compromise, though there is no legislative text yet. To be sure, the deal is fragile and it could quickly unravel amidst demands by various coalitions both within and outside Congress. But the fear of missed deadlines and ever shifting goalposts might be motivation enough for both the White House and Congress to shepherd the bill to fruition in July.

But that’s not all. Congress has also vowed to work on passing voting rights legislation, election security reforms, reshape policing and law enforcement across the country, renew gun control efforts, and rein in presidential war powers. While many have recognized the arbitrary nature of the “First Hundred Days” benchmark, the first term of a new presidency with unified governance is the better marker for a presidential legislative legacy.  This pattern is more pronounced in our increasingly polarized times—nothing like 1986’s Tax Reform Act is likely to be in the offing.

Infrastructure has potential, but the Democrats’ vaunted goal of a voting rights bill looks increasingly grim.  What recently failed in the Senate came from the previous Congress, however—a comprehensive bill that was so sweeping partially because it was intended as a messaging document they knew wouldn’t pass.  Prioritizing voting rights means rewriting that messaging bill to something politically possible.  One may have sympathy for a short calendar in tumultuous times, but Congress has figured out the simple arithmetic of time before.  To pass the ACA, for example, the Senate HELP and Finance committees started work in June 2008—before the election.


One should certainly not fault Congress for setting such an ambitious agenda for itself but with only 10 weeks left on the congressional calendar when both the House and Senate are in session together, there is only one thing to say: Good Luck!


Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute

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