Monthly Archives: June 2013

Weekly Legislative Report June 21, 2013

Agriculture

The House on Thursday defeated 195-234 a five-year farm policy bill (H.R. 1947) that would reauthorize agriculture programs through fiscal 2018.  The bill would cut $20.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Benefit Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest nutrition program, and end direct payments to farmers.  Overall, the bill would reduce agricultural program authorizations by $33 billion from current law.

Most Democrats opposed the bill due to the $20.5 billion cut to food stamps, while Republicans were split.  Sixty-two Republicans voted against the bill, mostly because they believe it is too expensive, while two dozen Democrats supported it.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) urged House members to take up the Senate-passed bill (S. 954), but GOP leadership has said that will not happen- that bill is likely a non-starter for most Republicans because it would cut SNAP by only $4 billion.  The bill’s commodity title also is less favorable to southern growers.  An extension of the 2008 farm bill expires on September 30th, but lawmakers could wait until the end of the year or longer to pass an extension.

Appropriations

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee marked up the FY14 Energy and Water spending bill.  Although the bill will cut nearly $3 billion from current federal levels, funding will be maintained for traditional energy sources — most notably research and development for advanced coal, natural gas, oil, and other fossil energy, — for nuclear energy research, and for programs that will address current gas prices.  Cuts will come primarily from those renewable energy programs favored by Democrats and the White House.  This bill is the first move by House appropriators to advance the most contentious of the 12 spending plans in the coming fiscal year.

The House also unveiled reductions to the FY14 Transportation-HUD spending bill on Tuesday.  Proposed cuts under the bill would largely come from passenger rail, mass transit, and housing grants.  While the bill will cut funding to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Housing and Urban Development Department, those highway and transportation safety programs authorized last year will remain fully funded.

Over at the Senate, markups began on the Military Construction-VA spending bill.  The bill is largely non-controversial and consistent with the administration’s request for $74.7 billion, with priority funding dedicated to reducing the backlog of disability claims.  Similarly, Senate Agriculture Appropriators backed a bill that would increase funding by around $420 million for the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and other related programs.  Both bills had bipartisan support.

Partisan battles did, however, begin at the Senate on Thursday when the full Senate committee considered the overall discretionary funding for FY 2014, known as 302(b) allocations.  Appropriations Chairwoman Mikulski (D-MD) proposed a plan that is $91 billion more than the spending plan in the House.  Senate Republicans opposed the allocations proposed by Mikulski and Senator Shelby (R-AL) stated that he plans to offer an alternative plan to keep discretionary spending under $967 billion. 

Education

Wednesday, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), Chairman John Kline’s (R-MN) rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The panel voted 23-16 vote along party lines to support the bill that will dramatically reduce the federal government’s role in K-12 education law, and put more control in the hands of state and local leaders.

Before advancing the bill, the panel adopted two Republican amendments by voice vote; one by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) that would allow states to use Title II funds, currently provided for teacher development, to assist teachers in meeting the needs of students with different learning styles, particularly English learners, gifted students and students with disabilities.  The second was offered by Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) and would encourage local school districts to expand dual enrollment programs and early college high schools.  Ranking member Rep. George Miller (D-CA), offered an amendment that would replace the Kline bill with something closer to the 2001 law, but the measure was rejected. 

The Senate voted last week to advance their version of the reauthorization, Strengthening America’s Schools Act (S. 1094), authored by Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), which would provide school districts with more flexibility in creating student accountability systems, require teacher evaluation systems and mandate interventions to assist failing schools.

Kline said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has told him to expect a floor vote in July.  While it’s possible the bill could pass the House, it is unclear how it would be conferenced with the competing Senate bill.

Immigration

On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis claiming that the Senate immigration bill (S. 744) would reduce the deficit by around $175 billion over the next ten years.  The bill, which would increase the U.S. population by 10.4 million people and would legalize roughly 8 million people, would create tax revenue to more than offset its cost.

Taxes

House and Senate Republicans are working to block House consideration of an internet sales tax bill (S. 743) that passed in the Senate on May 6 by a vote of 69-27.

Several Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), spoke out at a press conference on Tuesday, claiming the legislation infringed on the freedom and innovation of the fast-growing Internet sector of the economy, while also depicting the measure as a $23 billion tax increase.

The bill would allow states to force retailers in other states to collect sales tax on internet-based sales; consumers are already required to pay such taxes through state income tax returns, but analysts say most shoppers do not follow this rule.

Proponents of expanding the collection of Internet sales taxes include the retail industry, as well as state and local government officials.  They argue that brick-and-mortar businesses cannot compete against online retailers that aren’t forced to collect sales taxes.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) is sponsoring a companion House bill (H.R. 684), and House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) has said he does not support the Senate legislation, but is not opposed to moving some sort of bill that would deal with the issue.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, House Republicans plan to pass two energy bills aimed at facilitating energy development in offshore areas, as well as a bill funding the Department of Agriculture for 2014.

First on the agenda is the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act (H.R. 2231) which would open up new areas to offshore energy production along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts requiring the White House to implement a new offshore lease plan including these regions.  Republicans say Obama’s current lease plan keeps 85 percent of offshore areas closed to energy production.  The House Natural Resources Committee approved this bill last week.

The second bill is the Outer Continental Shelf Transboundary Hydrocarbon Agreements Authorization Act (H.R. 1613), which would approve the terms of the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement that would allow production of shared energy reserves along the maritime border of the U.S. and Mexico.

House leaders hope to move both these bills next week, in addition to H.R. 2410, the FY14 Agriculture Appropriations measure, which provides $19.5 billion in discretionary funding, $1.3 billion less than the levels in 2013, and $516 million below the President’s request.

In the Senate, the chamber today is resuming consideration of an overhaul of immigration laws (S. 744).  The focus is on an amendment by John Hoeven (R-ND) and Bob Corker (R-TN) that would condition permanent legal status on a range of heightened border security measures.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said hoped the chamber would be ready to move forward on the bill, and is expected to file cloture on the measure soon after it is filed.

Weekly Legislative Report June 14, 2013

Agriculture

The Senate on Monday voted 66-27 to approve a five-year farm bill which would cut $24 billion from farm spending over 10 years, including a $4 billion reduction to the SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps.  The Senate passed a similar bill last year, but it was never enacted as the House failed to take up farm legislation.

The House is working on a rival, $940 billion farm bill that cuts spending by $39.7 billion over 10 years, with $20.5 billion of the cuts coming from SNAP.  House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) crafted the bill, which will likely get a floor vote later this month.

Appropriations

This week, the House Appropriations Committee considered the Defense and Agriculture spending bills, paving the way to meet their goal of bringing all 12 bills to the floor.

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved the Defense spending bill by voice vote, which would provide $512.5 billion in base funding for the military, roughly $3.4 billion less than requested and about $28.1 billion more than the current post-sequestration level.  It would provide $5.1 billion less compared to the FY13 enacted level.

On Thursday the committee approved the agriculture spending bill, also by voice vote, which would provide $19.5 billion in discretionary funding for the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  The spending level is $1.3 billion less than FY13 levels, about even with current sequester-reduced levels and $516 million below the president’s request.

In the Senate, Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced this week that the Senate Appropriations Committee will markup their 302(b) allocations next Thursday June 20th, along with the Agriculture and Military Construction-VA bills, which will be considered in subcommittee on Tuesday June 18th.  

On Tuesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that he will join other Republican appropriators in opposing any FY14 appropriations bills that exceed the discretionary spending cap set by the 2011 deficit reduction law.  Chairwoman Mikulski plans to mark up the committee’s annual spending bills at a top-line level of $1.058 trillion, which does not recognize the sequester, and is about $91 billion higher than the level set by the House.  

Both the House and Senate plans, however, would trigger a new round of across-the-board spending reductions under the sequester because they both violate the caps set by the 2011 law; the House with its security spending and the Senate in both security and domestic spending.

Defense

Thursday evening, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 23-3 to approve the FY14 defense authorization measure, forecasting upcoming confrontations over the future of the prison at Guantánamo Bay and sequestration cuts to the Defense Department.

The draft bill would provide the president and Defense Department with flexibility to move detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States for trial or further detention or to a third-party country.  Many members disagree with the provision but agreed to hold amendments on the issue until the bill is considered on the floor.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said panel members found $1.8 billion in “savings and efficiencies” to restore sequester cuts that have affected flying hours and other training for the armed forces.  Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK), however, said more sequester replacement funding is needed.

Of the 200 amendments that were filed on the bill, members adopted 100.  Ten amendments were thrown out by roll call vote.  Some of the adopted amendments were as follows:

  • The panel approved, 17-9, an amendment from Levin that would require the next-most senior member in a chain of command to review any decision not to prosecute a sexual assault case.  It also would make any retaliatory action against a victim of sexual assault a crime.
  • An amendment from Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was adopted during closed session that would require defense attorneys to notify prosecutors when they want to interview sexual assault victims and would permit victims to have their own attorneys present when being questioned by defense lawyers.
  • Another McCaskill amendment that will be offered on the floor would require the military to maintain a database of people accused of, but not charged with, sexual assault.

Other provisions in the bill would:

  • Limit reimbursements to contractors to $487,000 from the current cap of about $750,000
  • Not authorize an East Coast missile defense site.  Instead, it would authorize $30 million for one radar unit to detect incoming missiles.
  • Authorize a 1 percent pay raise for the military, which matches the president’s request.
  • Not raise fees for Tricare, the military’s health care system.  President Barack Obama has requested that Congress increase fees, deductibles and co-payments.
  • Increase to $12.9 billion the cap on construction costs for the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier.
  • Authorize $90 million to continue efforts to find Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been charged with widespread human rights violations in Uganda, South Sudan and the Republic of Congo.

Transportation

Department of Transportation undersecretary for policy Polly Trottenberg spoke out on Thursday indicating that the White House is discussing several long-term transportation financing proposals and is hoping they will be part of tax overhaul talks on Capitol Hill.

Trottenberg testified at a Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee hearing that was held Thursday to explore options for repairing and improving the nation’s infrastructure.  Trottenberg wouldn’t give details on specific proposals to replace or supplement the current 18.4-cents-per-gallon retail tax on gasoline, however she did allude that the Obama administration was fond of an “upstream” petroleum tax.  Similar to a state-level plan moving forward in Virginia, it would tax gasoline at the wholesale level rather than at the filling pump.

This kind of idea could elicit a rare showing of bi-partisan support in a normally divided Congress.  A five-year transportation proposal that was approved last year by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but never brought to the floor for a vote, would have expanded domestic oil and gas drilling and devoted the new revenue to infrastructure investments.

Other options that states are trying include a vehicle mileage tax, which Oregon has been testing in recent months.  Drivers pay 1.6 cents per mile driven to cover their share of road maintenance instead of a per-gallon tax on fuel.  Advocates like the tax because it would acquire revenue from all drivers, not just those burning conventional gas or diesel.  However, critics worry that gathering the data needed to collect the tax could infringe on privacy.

In its FY14 budget proposal, the administration suggested investing funds saved by scaling back the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to infrastructure, including $214 billion in new funds for the Highway Trust Fund that would also cover high-speed rail projects.  Trottenberg said action on that proposal is highly unlikely.   She also emphasized the necessity to formulate a solution before the current surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141) expires in September 2014.  The CBO estimates that the fund will be insolvent shortly after that deadline without new revenue sources.

Washington Outlook

This week in Congress, action on the Senate immigration bill was stalled as a dispute over requiring supermajority votes for the adoption of amendments continued Thursday.  Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) threatened that senators should expect to work on the bill through next weekend if they cannot reach a deal on which proposals will receive votes, but have since adjourned.  Reid wants to complete the bill before the July Fourth recess.

The Senate will reconvene at 2 p.m. on Monday, June 17 to resume consideration of the bill (S. 744) that would offer a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants in the country and institute new border security measures.  Five amendments are currently pending on the bill, including two offered by Republican senators that would require security measures to be in place before illegal immigrants already in the country are offered provisional legal status.

One of the amendments, offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) would require a biometric entry-exit system at every port of entry before the Department of Homeland Security can grant the provisional status.  Vitter said he hopes senators can reach an agreement to hold votes on his amendment and others early next week.  But while he seeks a vote to modify the bill, Vitter said he also plans to raise a point of order that would be detrimental to the legislation.  Vitter said he will bring a budgetary point of order against the bill because it includes a provision that would exempt the bill’s $8.3 billion price tag from federal budget caps by designating the spending as an emergency.

At 5 p.m., the Senate will move into executive session to consider two district judge nominations: Luis Felipe Restrepo for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Kenneth John Gonzales for the District of New Mexico.  The Senate will vote on confirmation of the nominees at 5:30 p.m.

Senators will also be working over the next few weeks on a way to prevent federal student loan interest rates from doubling on July 1.

For the third time this month, Republicans blocked an attempt to set up a vote on a bill (S. 953) that would extend the current 3.4 percent fixed interest rate on subsidized federal Stafford loans for two years.  Democrats opposed a request to vote on a bill that would tie student loan interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note.  Meanwhile, a similar scenario played out in the House over competing Democratic (H.R. 1595) and Republican proposals (H.R. 1911).