Monthly Archives: July 2013

Weekly Legislative Report July 26, 2013

 

APPROPRIATIONS

Senate appropriators on Tuesday backed a draft FY14 State-Foreign Operations bill, which provides $50.6 billion in discretionary funds, including $6.5 billion for overseas contingency operations.  This amount is much higher than the amount of foreign aid supported in the House.  At the same time, Senate appropriators are rejecting a GOP push to slash funding to the IRS in response to its alleged targeting of conservative groups.

The Senate Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee advanced on Tuesday, a draft $44.3 billion measure to fund the Treasury Department, the Judiciary, District of Columbia, Securities and Exchange Commission and related agencies through FY14.  It would provide $23.2 billion in discretionary spending and $21.1 billion in mandatory spending.  The full Senate Appropriations Committee voted 16-14 to approve the bill on Thursday.

The Senate considered several amendments to the FY14 Transportation-HUD spending bill Thursday and is expected to continue work on it next week.  Senators agreed on Thursday to kill a motion by Sen. Toomey (R-PA) that would recommit the $54 billion Transportation-HUD measure to the Appropriations Committee with instructions to report back a bill that would provide a maximum amount of $45.5 billion.  The vote fell mostly along party lines, with only three Republicans breaking from party lines to support killing the motion.  All three are appropriators. The motion to table or kill Sen. Toomey’s motion came from Sen. Murray (D-WA).

On the House side, the House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee approved 7-4 on Tuesday a draft bill that would provide $24.3 billion in funding for the EPA, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Indian Health Services and other programs, $5.5 billion less than FY13 enacted levels and $4 billion less than post-sequestration spending.  President Barack Obama requested less than $30 billion. The bill also would cap EPA staffing at 1992 levels and prohibit any rules that would limit greenhouse gas emissions by power plants or limit the sulfur content of gas.

The House on Thursday approved their FY14 Defense Appropriations bill (H.R. 2397) by 315 -109.  The legislation provides $512.5 billion in non-war funding; a decrease of $5.1 billion below the FY13 enacted level and $3.4 billion below the President’s request. This is approximately $28.1 billion above the current level caused by automatic sequestration spending cuts.  The bill also includes $85.8 billion in war funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

The House Labor HHS Subcommittee was scheduled to consider their FY14 spending bill on Thursday July 25th, however on Wednesday morning the subcommittee announced that they were postponing the markup until a later date.

BUDGET

A Congressional Budget Office report on Thursday noted that canceling the automatic sequestration cuts for the rest of this year and next year would add almost one million jobs to the economy.  The report was requested by Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.  However, the report also noted that the increase in spending eventually would raise debt beyond current projections.

TAXES

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is preparing to introduce a bipartisan tax overhaul this fall.  In preparation for its release, Democratic leaders have spoken out this week, calling for the tax package to include methods to raise significant revenue.  Republicans have been very vocal in their opposition to raising taxes, and are hoping for a rewrite of the tax code that is revenue-neutral, potentially complicating the efforts of Baucus and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI), who are working together toward an overhaul.

Baucus has been very cautious in drafting the legislation, and tried to defer hard decisions about revenue levels as he seeks common ground with Republicans over structural tax changes. He has said the revenues sought by some Democrats were unrealistic.

On Tuesday, Baucus promised that he and his committee would consider tax overhaul legislation by November.  His strategy of writing a bill without an overall fiscal agreement on tax and spending levels has also caused confusion, even if many senators also appreciate his eagerness to kick-start discussions.

WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Next week in Congress, the Senate will resume consideration of the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill (S.1243).  Also on the schedule is the consideration the nomination of James Comey Jr. to be director of the FBI, as well as votes on nominees for on National Labor Relations Board: the administration’s choices are Kent Yoshiho Hirozawa, Nancy Jean Schiffer, and Mark Gaston Pearce (the current NLRB chairman); his term expires August 27.  The Republican nominations of Harry Johnson III and Philip Miscimarra to be NLRB members are still pending.

On the House side, House Energy and Commerce will prepare to mark up a bipartisan bill that would replace the sustainable growth rate, Medicare’s formula for reimbursing doctor services (H.R. 2810).  The bill is supported by physician groups, who are pushing for a variety of alternative payment systems.  The bill would promote moving away from the existing fee-for-service system that critics say rewards volume of services over value.

Another issue on the horizon are talks of how to go about replacing the sequester.  The Obama Administration and eight Republican senators are discussing potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare that could be part of an agreement to replace the automatic spending cuts in the 2011 debt deal (P.L. 112-25).

The group met on Tuesday and Thursday with White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough and discussed entitlement cuts similar to proposals in Obama’s FY14 budget blueprint.  These include a less generous Social Security cost-of-living adjustment known as the chained consumer price index and means tests for Medicare, including higher premiums for individuals making more than $85,000 and couples making more than $170,000.

These discussions could possibly factor into broader negotiations this fall on raising the government’s borrowing authority and, possibly, overhauling the tax code.

 

Weekly Legislative Report July 19, 2013

APPROPRIATIONS

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee approved a draft spending bill that would provide $39.1 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Homeland Security and related agencies and $6.2 billion in disaster aid for FY14.  This amount is $439 million less than FY13, but it is $1.3 million more than post-sequester 2013 spending and $72 million more than the amount the president requested.  The House approved a similar spending measure (H.R. 2217), which would provide $28.9 billion in discretionary spending and $5.6 billion in disaster aid.

The Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee also approved an appropriations bill that would provide $52.3 billion in discretionary spending.  This bill was approved on Tuesday through a voice vote.  The amount in the bill is $2.2 billion higher than FY13 and $5.3 billion more than post-sequester levels.  It includes $28.5 billion for the Justice Department and $18 billion for NASA.  The bill provides roughly $4.9 billion more than the competing House proposal.

On the House side, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amended FY14 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill on Wednesday by voice vote. The bill would provide $47.4 billion in discretionary spending and would maintain post-sequestration spending levels.

House appropriators also began work Friday on a FY14 spending bill that would gut economic assistance accounts to poor countries and to multilateral programs, such as the international development banks.  The draft State-Foreign Operations appropriations bill is well below the White House’s request of $47.8 billion but is in line with current spending, once the sequester is factored in.

EDUCATION

The Republican proposed No Child Left Behind bill (H.R. 5), which was sponsored by Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed the House on Friday despite opposition from Democrats in Congress and from the White House.  The bill sparked controversy that resulted in members from both parties filing 74 amendments with the House Rules Committee by Wednesday afternoon.  Lawmakers considered several amendments addressing charter schools, Title I funds to low-income students and state’s rights.

The bill will eliminate the controversial accountability standards in George W. Bush’s elementary and secondary law and let states develop their own benchmarks and assessments.  The White House issued a veto threat on Wednesday, calling the bill a “significant step backwards.” Democrats have also spoken out against the bill, arguing that replacing the accountability system with a federal solution will result in funding cuts and states setting lower academic standards.

The Senate is expected to bring its version of the legislation to the floor in the fall. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved its version (S. 1094) last month.  This version would provide school districts with more flexibility in creating student accountability systems, require teacher evaluation systems and mandate interventions to assist failing schools.

After weeks of negotiations, the Senate reached a deal Wednesday to retroactively fix the student loan increase and provide a long-term fix to student loan rates. The deal will tie both subsidized and unsubsidized rates to the market and put caps on individual loans.  While it is unclear whether the House will also take up the deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Thursday that although he had not seen the details of the bill, he was hopeful about resolving the issue. Senators are promising a broader examination of all aspects of scholastic financial aid this fall when they take up a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

TAXES

The eMain Street Alliance, a coalition of more than 500 Internet stores, has taken up lobbying efforts to oppose the Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that would allow states to require Internet retailers to collect sales taxes.  The bill is sponsored by Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR).  Late last month, this coalition lobbied the House Judiciary Committee to kill the pending bill.  The coalition argues that the bill is big retail’s attempt to hurt their small online competitors.  The Senate passed a bill in May that would allow states to move forward with this tax. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-WY).

According to an Art Laffer and Donna Arduin project cited by Tulsa World, the act will create 1.5 million jobs in the United States over the next 10 years and increase the gross domestic product by $563.2 billion.  This includes 21,348 jobs in Oklahoma alone.  Opponents of the bill argue that taxes should be simplified, rather than made more complex.  Rep. Bridenstine (R-OK) has spoken out against the bill, stating “[b]usiness decisions have been based on the current laws. Let’s not change the rules in the middle of the game unless we have a real improvement.”

WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

On Tuesday, a tentative deal to avert the so-called “nuclear” change in filibuster rules was struck between Republicans and Democrats.  Led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the deal will result in President Obama pulling the two controversial nominees to the National Labor Relations Board and Republicans confirming their replacement nominees quickly.  Republicans also agreed to an up-or-down vote on Tom Perez as secretary of Labor.  The Senate confirmed Perez on Thursday, despite Republican opposition. The vote fell along party lines with no Republicans supporting President Obama’s nominee.

House Republicans’ efforts to limit amendments to the annual Defense spending bill will delay action on the FY14 Defense spending bill (H.R. 2397) and the Transportation-HUD bill (H.R. 2610).  GOP leadership has been trying to create a structured rule that would only allow certain amendments to the Defense bill, and would block amendments with provisions relating to the National Security Agency, the Syria conflict, and the Egyptian military coup.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) took steps to bring the first of the Senate’s FY14 spending bills to the floor next week by filing cloture on the motion to proceed to the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill (S. 1243).  This bill would provide $54 billion for transportation, housing and community development programs.  There is a $10 billion difference between the Senate’ version of this bill and the House’s H.R. 2610.

On Thursday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) formally requested that the House move to conference on the farm bill. The Chairwoman dispelled any notion that nutrition programs would be left out of the final bill coming out of the Senate-House conference.  The Chairwoman told reporters,“[w]e could not pass that through the Senate nor would the president of the United States sign that kind of a bill.”

Weekly Legislative Report July 12, 2013

Agriculture

The House on Thursday voted 216-208 to approve a farm bill (H.R. 2642) after separating funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office reported that the House agriculture-only bill will produce $12.9 billion in savings over the next ten years.   According to Republicans, the nutrition provision stripped from the measure will be put into a separate bill.  However, there is no indication of when the House will take action on these provisions and if this will occur before going to conference with the Senate.  The Senate will likely oppose the House version of the bill, as the Senate-passed bill focuses heavily on nutrition programs. 

In other agriculture news, Reps. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Ron Kind (D-WI) introduced the Charitable Agricultural Research Act (H.R. 2671) yesterday, which would allow for the formation of tax-exempt agricultural research organizations.  The bill would require organizations qualifying for the exemption to work with agricultural and land grant colleges and universities, and would provide research in underfunded fields. 

In the Senate, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and John Thune (R-SD) are planning to introduce a companion measure.  Despite having bi-partisan support, the bill’s chances of moving forward largely depend on comprehensive tax reform, unless the sponsors are able to attach it to another bill.

Appropriations

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee approved by voice vote a draft FY14 spending bill for the Legislative Branch.  The bill would provide $3.2 billion for the operations of the House of Representatives, Capitol Police, Library of Congress and other legislative agencies, and does not include spending for Senate operations.  Under the House’s approved discretionary spending levels, total legislative branch spending would be $4.1 billion under House-allocated levels, $153 million less than FY13 and $63 million more than post-sequester spending.

Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the draft measure of a Labor-HHS-Education bill, which will provide $164.3 billion in discretionary funding.  This amount is nearly 35% more than House appropriators have allocated and almost $15 billion more than current spending levels.  The bill provides the full funding requested by President Obama for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to carry out the healthcare overhaul.  It also provides funding for the Prevention and Public Health Fund, the National Institutes of Health, Head Start and other early childhood programs, and Job Corps.  The House has not marked up its version of the bill yet, but they are likely to reject many of the spending increases in the Senate’s bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved a Legislative Branch spending bill that would provide nearly $3 billion for the Senate and joint legislative branch agencies in FY14.  The panel approved the draft bill in a party line 16-14 vote en bloc with Labor-HHS-Education appropriations draft bill.  The measure would provide $47 million more than the FY13 enacted level, a 1.6 percent increase.  It does not include appropriations for activities of the House.  The House Appropriations Committee allotted $4.1 billion for total discretionary spending on legislative branch activities, while the Senate panel allotted $4.4 billion for the same activities.  The House allocation would call for $63 million more and the Senate allocation $289 million more than the total FY13 spending level for the legislative branch under the sequester.

Education

A bipartisan deal in the Senate to retroactively reverse the July 1st hike in federal student loan interest rates blew up Thursday when the Congressional Budget Office reported that the proposal would cost $22 billion over ten years.

Senate negotiators from both sides of the aisle had reached a deal on Wednesday that would base the interest rates of new federal student loans on the market, but peg them to the 10-year Treasury note.  The tentative deal included a front end cap on loans and fixed rates for the life of the borrower’s loan.  However, Senators were sent back to the drawing board when CBO released its figure, which is too high for Republicans to support.  The CBO estimate seemed to be a surprise to Senate negotiators, who expressed their desire to see a plan as close to deficit neutral as possible.     

Environment

Tuesday, the House Science, Space and Technology panel’s Environment subcommittee advanced by voice vote an amended bill (H.R. 2413) that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to prioritize weather-related activities by shifting funds from climate change research to severe weather forecasting research.  The bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and would authorize roughly $100 million over four years for weather laboratories, weather and air chemistry research, and a joint technology transfer initiative at the agency’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

Washington Outlook

Next week in the Senate, members will have a rare joint caucus meeting on Monday in the old Senate chamber to discuss Reid’s threat to change the Senate’s rules with a simple majority vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) threatened Thursday to change Senate rules so that only a simple majority is needed to clear executive nominations.  Senator Reid’s threats were a reaction to Republican efforts to hold up seven executive nominations, including Thomas Perez as Labor Secretary, Gina McCarthy as head of the EPA, and members of the National Labor Relations Board, which could shut down unless nominees are confirmed before the August recess.  Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called these “illegal, unconstitutional nominees.” 

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who has been working on a bipartisan compromise to reduce the interest rates on student loans and voted for a bipartisan immigration bill, said the rules change would bring Senate business to a screeching halt.  Negotiations over the student loan issue have already been shaky, and they had to deal with another obstacle on Thursday.  A spokesman for Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a key negotiator, said those helping craft the proposal are still struggling to modify it, in hopes of getting a better score from the CBO. 

Senators are also struggling to find a path forward on an agriculture-only version of the farm bill (H.R. 2642) that narrowly passed the House Thursday.  Though Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow promised to conference with any version of a farm bill passed that came out of the House, she was highly critical of the measure after Thursday’s vote.  The bill would make commodity programs, such as those that support prices for sugar, permanent law. 

The House will begin debate as soon as next week on a bill to overhaul the federal education law, widely known as No Child Left Behind, Republican leadership aides confirmed Wednesday.  GOP leaders said they’ve been discussing the proposal (H.R. 5) with members for months and expect it to have no problems on the floor.

The Senate is also moving ahead on a No Child rewrite.  The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on June 12 approved its own reauthorization bill (S. 1094), written by Democrats, that would allow school districts more flexibility in creating student accountability systems, require teacher evaluation systems and mandate interventions to assist failing schools. However, the Senate has not announced plans to bring it to the floor.