Monthly Archives: May 2013

Weekly Legislative Report May 24, 2013

 Agriculture

When the Senate returns from the Memorial Day recess, they will resume consideration of a five-year farm policy bill (S. 954).  They will vote on two amendments — one that would require research and development of a crop insurance program for alfalfa and another that would add $20 million in funding for food aid projects in developing countries.  Further votes are possible.

About 200 amendments have been filed on the farm bill, but the Senate has already rejected controversial proposals to eliminate a $4 billion cut over 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and to change the sugar program.

In a 59-33 vote, senators backed an amendment by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would reduce federal premium subsidies by 15 percent for producers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.  Overall, the federal government pays 62 percent of a farmer’s premium and the farmer pays the rest.

Despite the support in the Senate, the proposal could still face problems in the House.  House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) dislikes any conservation compliance or income restrictions on farm subsidies, and the bill his committee passed does not include either provision.

Appropriations

Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote an amended Military Construction-VA spending bill that would provide $152.8 billion, including $73.3 billion for discretionary spending.  The Department of Veterans Affairs would get $63.1 billion and military construction would get $9.9 billion.  VA medical services would receive $43.6 billion.  The measure reflects a $1.4 billion increase over the FY13 enacted level and $2.4 billion more than that level after the sequester, which affected military construction accounts but not veterans’ spending.

Before reporting the measure, the panel rejected Democratic amendments that would have replaced $150 billion in cuts from sequestration with over $182 billion in tax raises and spending cuts and another proposal that would have eliminated the civilian pay freeze and increased the cost of the bill by $186 million.  The committee did adopt a manager’s amendment that would change the amount rescinded from Army construction from $14 million to $89 million.

It also would provide an additional $75 million for Navy and Marine Corps construction.  The amendment further added a number of reporting requirements to the bill, including one on veterans’ suicide and another on veterans’ mental health.  The spending bill is expected to move to the House floor in June.  The Senate plans on marking up their version of the bill on June 17th.

The House Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote an amended draft spending bill on Wednesday that would provide $38.9 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and departments it oversees.  The measure is about $1.2 billion above FY13 spending with sequesters cuts considered, but is about $35 million below the White House request.  It would provide small increases to $10.6 billion for Customs and Border Patrol and to $5.4 billion to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but cut the Transportation Security Administration by 7 percent to $4.8 billion.

The committee adopted in a partisan vote a provision that would maintain a ban on abortions, in most cases, for military detainees.  It also approved an amendment that would effectively block the federal government from approving any immigration visa petitions from Brazil to pressure the South American country to extradite a person involved in an Ohio murder investigation.  House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said the bill could go to the floor sometime in June.

Disaster Aid

After a deadly tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma this week, lawmakers immediately began debating whether the cost of addressing the damage caused should be offset.  However, the disagreement is likely premature because sufficient federal disaster assistance is available and the Obama administration says a quick infusion of emergency funding is not needed.

President Barack Obama issued a major disaster declaration on Monday for Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie Counties in Oklahoma, hoping to increase the speed and flow of federal aid.  The declaration opens a path for programs including grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.

Obama on Tuesday also sent the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate to Oklahoma City to help coordinate federal aid efforts.  Fugate will join FEMA staffers already on the scene.

FEMA’s disaster fund is relatively substantial with about $11.6 billion in its disaster relief fund due to an injection of more than $5 billion from the Sandy recovery package (PL 113-2).  Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the House Appropriations chair, also said Tuesday that it appears for now there may be “sufficient” money in the Disaster Relief Fund for immediate response to the tornado, but he said his committee will be prepared to act if more is needed.

Rogers said he would oppose bids to seek funding offsets if a supplemental aid bill proves necessary for the Oklahoma tornado, a stipulation Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been adamant about.

Energy

The House on Wednesday voted 241-175 to pass legislation green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline’s northern route, making it the seventh time that House Republicans voted to approve or expedite a decision on the pipeline, which if completed would carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas.  Project developer TransCanada has already begun construction on the southern portion of the pipeline.

Republicans rejected a handful of amendments sought by Democrats to scale back the measure.  Democrats took particular issue with provisions that would deem the State Department’s 2011 environmental impact statement enough to satisfy National Environmental Policy Act (P.L. 91-190) requirements and would require the secretaries of the Interior and the Army to issue the necessary permits for construction and operation of the pipeline.

The legislation (H.R. 3) was authored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) and despite its support in the House; it is unlikely that the measure will gain traction in the Senate.  President Obama also threatened to veto the bill, saying that the legislation is unnecessary and that it conflicts with long-standing executive branch procedures.

In other energy news, the House on Wednesday passed a bill (H.R. 271) that would allow utilities to provide electricity under federal emergency orders without facing criminal or civil liability for not complying with environmental rules.

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) by voice vote and would allow utilities complying with Energy Department emergency orders to override any liabilities posed by federal, state or local environmental regulations.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be allowed to renew or reissue the emergency electricity orders for 90 days but would have to include conditions to minimize any adverse environmental effects.

Washington Outlook

The House and Senate have adjourned for the Memorial Day recess, and will not be in session next week.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of June 3-7.

Weekly Legislative Report May 17, 2013

Agriculture

The House Agriculture Committee met on Wednesday to mark up this year’s farm bill (H.R. 1947), voting 36-10 to approve the legislation.  The measure would trim spending by about $20 billion more than a Senate version of the bill that advanced Tuesday, but the Congressional Budget Office said savings could near $40 billion if Congress acted to end the budget sequester.

The current farm policy law (P.L. 112-24) expires September 30.  The bill is estimated to cost $940 billion over 10 years, and would guard against revenue loss with a program that would offer assistance to farmers when county revenue levels fall 15 to 25 percent below a five-year benchmark.

The biggest issue in the bill remains the fight over $20.5 billion in cuts over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which Republicans believe are too low and Democrats think are too high.

The Senate bill (S. 954) calls for $4 billion in SNAP spending reductions over 10 year by requiring states to provide eligible households with at least $10 in heating assistance to qualify them for SNAP monthly benefits.  The House bill would set the threshold at $20 for a savings of nearly $9 billion over the next decade.  The House measure also would end states’ ability to set higher poverty level thresholds than the federal level and to qualify people who receive non-cash aid from other programs for low-income people.  The House language would end the practice of categorical eligibility and limit SNAP eligibility to people who receive cash benefits from federal welfare or state assistance programs.  This would provide a savings of nearly $12 billion over 10 years.

Senate floor debate is expected to begin next week, and if the House can act in June, it would clear the way for the two sides to begin final negotiations to agriculture policy.

Appropriations

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) on Thursday began circulating the panel’s distribution of roughly $967 billion, known as 302(b) allocations, which are due to be approved by his committee next Tuesday.

Rogers is positioned to advance the first of this year’s spending bills to the floor by moving two largely non-controversial measures: the Military Construction-VA and Homeland Security spending bills.  With overall base discretionary spending held to $967 billion, Rogers is putting a priority on what he sees as security items, including law enforcement and homeland security as well as the military.  The allocations include $513 billion for defense and $73 billion for military construction and veterans affairs, as measured by budget authority.  War spending and mandatory funds would bring the defense total to $599 billion.  The allocations provide a broad overview of the spending bills without offering details, but the figures reflect potential steep cuts in domestic discretionary programs.

The Milcon-VA bill is due to be approved by the full committee next Tuesday and is expected on the House floor in June.  The Homeland Security and Defense bills are also expected to move soon.  The draft Homeland Security Appropriations bill is due to be approved by the full committee as early as next week, and would provide $38.9 billion for the Department and programs it oversees.

Rogers has said that the other nine bills will be more difficult to move forward since they contain the majority of the cuts.  For example, Labor, Education and Health and Human Services are facing a nearly 20 percent reduction on top of the cuts already made in the March 1 sequestration order.

Discretionary spending for the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services would be capped at $121.8 billion — or about $28 billion below the best available estimates for post-sequestration appropriations.  Transportation, housing, environmental and natural resources programs stand out as other targets for significant cuts.  For example, an estimated $44.1 billion is allocated for the bill funding the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.  That compares with roughly $48.5 billion after sequestration in March — a 9 percent drop that will affect the same Federal Aviation Administration functions that triggered the controversial furloughs of air traffic controllers earlier this spring.

Water Resources

The Senate voted 83-14 on Wednesday to pass the Water Resources Development Act or WRDA (S. 601).  The bill would authorize construction of Army Corps of Engineers water projects that have completed Chief of Engineers reports and for which the head of the corps of recommended to Congress.  It also would boost money available from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for dredging and other harbor projects until 2020, when all money deposited into the fund for a given year would need to be available for such projects.

The legislation contains provisions designed to speed up the environmental permitting process.  For example, it would set financial penalties for agencies that do not make permitting decisions within a certain time frame.  Depending on the type of review required, either $10,000 or $20,000 would be shifted each week from the head of the agency to the division charged with completing the review.

It also would create a national levee safety program, establish a program to provide loans for flood control, drinking and wastewater infrastructure projects, and create a commission to de-authorize Army Corps of Engineers water projects.

The House is expected to take up its own measure, but the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has not yet introduced legislation.

Washington Outlook

The Senate will reconvene next Monday at 2 p.m. and after an hour for morning business the chamber will proceed to the consideration of a five-year farm policy bill (S. 954).  At 5 p.m., senators will move into executive session to consider two U.S. district court judge nominations: Sheri Polster Chappell for the Middle District of Florida and Michael J. McShane for the District of Oregon.  The Senate will vote on those nominations around 5:30 p.m.

Also, at a time to be determined by Senate leaders, the chamber will proceed to executive session to consider the nominations of Mark Barnett and Claire Kelly to be judges for the U.S. Court of International Trade.

Senators are expected to spend much of the week debating an estimated $955 billion bill that would overhaul aid to farmers and cut spending by $18 billion.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also indicated Thursday that he would try to bring up an immigration policy measure as soon as it’s ready.  The Judiciary Committee is in the process of marking up the bill, which will continue next week.

Reid may also soon move for Senate consideration of the nominations of Thomas Perez to be Labor secretary and Gina McCarthy to be EPA administrator.  Senate committees advanced the nominations on party-line votes Thursday, and both are expected to face Republican filibusters.

Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee twice delayed a vote on Perez’s nomination, criticizing the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for being too partisan and ideological.

GOP members of the Environment and Public Works Committee also boycotted a meeting last week on McCarthy’s nomination over outstanding requests to the EPA for information. McCarthy currently serves as the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe committed Wednesday to take additional steps forward in fulfilling the Republican members’ transparency requests, which satisfied ranking member David Vitter (R-LA) enough to attend Thursday’s vote.  However, Vitter indicated that McCarthy’s confirmation may still be delayed.

Weekly Legislative Report May 10, 2013

Agriculture

House Republicans released their newly drafted farm bill on Friday, claiming nearly $40 billion in savings over the next decade, much of it from food stamps but also reflecting a major rewrite of commodity programs for producers.

Senate Democrats introduced their own farm bill Thursday evening, in preparation for back-to-back markups next Tuesday and Wednesday in the Senate and House Agriculture committees.

The House bill offers $20.5 billion in savings from food stamps, a nearly 25 percent increase over nutrition cuts last year.  And while discontinuing direct cash subsidies to producers, the bill allows for two years of transition payments for powerful cotton interests important to the GOP.  Based on preliminary estimates by the Congressional Budget Office—the bill saves $39.7 billion over 10 years, about $6 billion of which can be attributed to the long term impact of sequestration.

Overall, the new Senate bill (S. 10) largely mirrors the 2012 measure.  Direct payments to grain and cotton farmers would end and be replaced by the Agriculture Risk Coverage program (ARC), a “shallow loss” revenue protection plan.  The new bill modifies ARC, delaying the effective date by a year to save money.  It also would reduce the cost of ARC by requiring farms to have a revenue loss of at least 12 percent before getting payments, not 11 percent as in last year’s version.

Both House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and his Senate counterpart, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) are eager to get the legislation to the floor and into final negotiations this summer.

Appropriations

The first full committee markup for the House Appropriations Committee is expected to be on Tuesday, May 21.  At this time, the Committee would approve the 302(b) allocations, which are reportedly privately being shared with some Subcommittee Chairmen.

The first Subcommittee mark-up is MilCon-VA, scheduled next Wednesday, May 15.  It is also possible Homeland Security will be marked up in Subcommittee next week, and then in full Committee on the 21st.

Defense and Agriculture are likely to mark up in Subcommittee during the first week of June (Agriculture could be late May).

All four bills would likely see floor consideration in June.

Taxes

The Senate on Monday voted 69-27 to pass “The Marketplace Fairness Act” (S. 743) that would for the first time allow states to collect online sales tax revenue from out-of-state purchases.

Before the Senate advanced the measure on Monday, it voted 70-24 to adopt a manager’s amendment that would delay implementation of the bill for six months, up from an initially proposed three-month period for states that follow certain requirements.  Under the amendment, states could not impose sales tax requirements on remote sellers that are any different from those required of in-state retailers.  The legislation also would exempt retailers making $1 million or less annually in remote sales.

The vote is a major victory for retail groups and state governments, who for years have fought to close a loophole that allows as much as $23 billion in annual taxes from online sales to go uncollected.  Those who disapprove, mostly from states without a sales tax, say that businesses will be burdened with complying to others states tax rates and systems.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has outlined a host of concerns about the measure, though he and other leading GOP lawmakers have also said they understand the concerns of brick-and-mortar stores.  He said that the Senate proposal remains too complex, but may try to win over conservative colleagues who oppose the legislation by throwing in enticements, such as an extension of an Internet tax moratorium (P.L. 110-108) that expires in November 2014 and bars new levies on Internet access providers.  He may also propose adding language to limit taxes on wireless services.

GOP leaders in the House are unlikely to maneuver around the Judiciary panel, and Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR), the lead GOP sponsor of the House version of the bill (H.R. 684), has said he wants and expects it to proceed through the committee process.  The House version has collected more than 60 co-sponsors so far.

Water Resources

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday moved to limit debate on a water resources bill after senators adopted several amendments to the legislation, bringing the chamber closer to finishing the measure next week.

 The Senate on Wednesday added a provision to the Water Resources Development Act or WRDA (S. 601) that settles a dispute between appropriators and authorizers over who will control over a billion dollars in harbor maintenance funding.

 Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee leaders dropped a provision to the legislation that would require all money raised for a harbor maintenance trust fund through a tax on imported and domestic cargo be spent on the designated purposes.  Instead, the funding would be phased in by increasing the dedicated spending by $100 million annually for six years.  Currently, only about $900 million of the $1.6 billion collected annually through user fees on shipping companies is spent on harbor projects.

Other adopted amendments are as follows:

·         A proposal by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was adopted 67-32 that would authorize the creation of a national endowment to support the restoration and protection of oceans, coastal areas and the Great Lakes.

·         The Senate voted unanimously to adopt an amendment from Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to lead a multiagency effort to slow the spread of Asian carp in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins and tributaries.  Supporters of the amendment argued that the spread of the invasive species threatens the Great Lakes ecosystem as well as the Ohio and Mississippi River basins, but there isn’t an agency responsible for coordinating a federal response.

·         Also adopted by unanimous consent in an en bloc package of a handful of amendments was a modified proposal by Mark Pryor (D-AR) that would loosen an EPA rule aimed at preventing discharging oil into navigable waters in its application to certain farms.  Starting later this week, the EPA will require farms storing a certain amount of oil to have spill prevention plans, with many farms needing to have their plans certified by an engineer.

·         An amendment from Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to provide for rural water infrastructure projects was passed unanimously.

The Senate will continue consideration of the bill on Monday, and are hopeful to complete work by next week.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will work to complete the Water Resources Development Act.  The next legislative action expected in the Senate is the farm bill, which is scheduled for markup Tuesday in the Agriculture Committee.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders are working out a time to vote on two executive nominations and a judicial nomination.

Senators agreed Thursday to proceed to executive session to consider the nominations of Marilyn Tavenner to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Ernest J. Moniz to be secretary of Energy, as well as the nomination of William H. Orrick III of the District of Columbia to be a district judge for the Northern District of California.

Earlier this week, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) lifted his hold on the Tavenner nomination.  Harkin said he used the hold to draw attention to the administration’s decision to move money from a preventive care fund to pay for new insurance exchanges created by the 2010 health care overhaul.

Senators from both parties said they expect Tavenner to be confirmed, despite concerns over the health care policies she will help implement.