Monthly Archives: October 2013

Weekly Legislative Report Oct 25, 2013

 

 

J.R. Reskovac

Sarah Strup

 

 

Appropriations/Budget

 

The House-Senate budget conference will meet next Wednesday, October 30 where they are expected to tackle entitlement and tax reform and spending cuts, though there is doubt that both sides will be able to put partisan views aside to reach an agreement after the failure of similar groups.

 

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) will head the conference, and have been preparing the groundwork for talks that will begin next week.  The conference is tasked with coming to an agreement by December 13 and the main goal will be finding a top-line discretionary spending level for FY14, which began on October 1.  So far the House and Senate are $91 billion apart on their preferred top-line numbers.

 

The government, which re-opened last Thursday after a 16-day shutdown, is now operating under a $987 billion top-line budget.  Fifteen days after Congress adjourns, the spending level will be cut by another round of sequestration to $968 billion.  Funding runs out on January 15 and appropriators hope that a budget agreement will give them enough time to pass an omnibus spending bill by that time.  The budget conference could also produce a wider deficit agreement would facilitate the passage of another increase in the debt ceiling by February 7.

 

In order to accomplish this, Democrats and Republicans need to meet somewhere in the middle; right now, the Senate budget contains nearly $1 trillion in tax hikes and spending increases, while the House budget would balance it in 10 years by cutting $5.7 trillion in spending.

Transportation

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Administrator Michael Huerta spoke out on Thursday saying that because of the recent government shutdown and time of uncertain funding levels, the agency’s core functions should be reevaluated, suggesting that the FAA could open the door to eventually privatizing some of what it does.

Huerta issued more than 1,000 stop work orders because of the shutdown, delaying work on the NextGen air traffic control upgrade, which is already taking longer than airlines had hoped.  Thousands of safety-critical employees worked without pay until Congress cleared a funding and debt limit deal (P.L. 113-46).

 

Gathering support to pass a bill with these kinds of policy changes will be no easy feat. The last FAA reauthorization (P.L. 112-95) became law in February 2012, and was only successful after four years of stopgaps.  At one point in August 2011, the agency partially shut down amid a standoff over union organizing rules for airline and railroad workers.

 

Since then, the FAA has been subject to repeated cuts, including those mandated by the sequester (P.L. 112-25).  Huerta said those have exacerbated troubles in completing missions like the NextGen implementation.  A law (P.L. 113-9) enacted in the spring allows the Transportation secretary the flexibility to prevent furloughs of air traffic controllers as a result of FY13 sequester cuts.  Lawmakers have said they plan to continue giving similar flexibilities.  Huerta also wants a long-term funding boost for aviation infrastructure.  Currently the FAA has a $5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.

 

The next reauthorization for the FAA isn’t due until 2016, but Huerta’s appeal to re-examine the agency’s core mission could be a critical first step in opening a dialogue on privatizing certain functions.

Water Resources

On Wednesday, the House voted 417-3 to pass a water infrastructure measure (H.R. 3080) after rejecting proposals to further reduce the backlog of inactive projects and delay provisions targeted at speeding up environmental reviews.  17 amendments were approved before passing the bill; some of the amendments that passed are as follows:

·         A manager’s amendment from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster (R-PA) was approved by voice vote.  It would expand upon provisions in the bill to allow for more involvement by states and local governments in water projects by allowing state and local governments or the private sector (non-federal interests) to carry out projects that have not been expressly authorized by Congress if they meet certain requirements.  A final feasibility report would need to be completed, and would have to obtain required federal and state permits and approvals and carry out the project in compliance with the plan set out in the final feasibility report.  The manager’s amendment would require the Army secretary to speed up completion of ongoing feasibility studies and, if justified in a completed report, start preconstruction for the projects.

·         A proposal that would block regional ocean management planning under a 2010 White House order that Republicans say grants too much power federal agencies to control inland water use was adopted 225-193.

·         Several provisions dealing with invasive species were approved.  One offered by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MI) 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 by providing assistance to state and local governments.

Now, House and Senate conferees face the challenge of reconciling big differences in their bills to authorize harbor maintenance, dredging, dam, levee and environmental restoration programs.  Both the House (H.R. 3080) and Senate (S. 601) bills would avoid earmarks, expedite regulatory and environmental reviews and restructure the funding mechanism for dredging and harbor maintenance projects.  However, the bills take very different approaches toward achieving those objectives.

The biggest difference between the two bills is how to select Army Corps of Engineers projects that will be authorized for funding.  In the past, lawmakers designated specific projects in authorization bills, but that is no longer permitted due to the earmark moratorium.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) avoided the earmark issue in the Senate bill by setting criteria that the corps would have to follow in selecting projects.  The measure would authorize $5.7 billion in projects through FY18.  House Republicans complained that would cede too much legislative power to the executive branch.  The House bill, instead, would authorize 23 projects with an estimated cost of $3.1 billion over the next five years and then establish a new process for future project selection.  Under that system, the corps would submit its own recommendations — as well as state and local suggestions — for Congress to approve or reject.  The measure also would require the president to recommend in his annual budget specific corps projects that Congress should fund.

 

Boxer said she was “pleased” that the House passed its bill “so that we can move forward with the House-Senate conference as soon as possible.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the House-Senate budget conference will meet on Wednesday to face the daunting task of trying to find an alternative to a $20 billion cut in national defense spending that’s set to occur in January.

The federal government is being funded now under the temporary spending language approved last week to end the government shutdown.  That expires January 15, and some new funding mechanism for agencies will be needed by then.  Whether that will be a longer-term plan, or whether another stopgap bill will be needed, could depend on the success of this budget conference committee in finding some compromises.

Also scheduled for next Wednesday is the first public meeting of the Farm Bill conference committee which will be chaired by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK).

The Senate passed its comprehensive Farm Bill in the early summer, while the House passed its farm policy and food aid proposals in two separate measures after a large bloc of conservative lawmakers insisted on splitting the legislation apart.  The legislation will be stitched together for the sake of a House-Senate compromise.

 

The biggest issue of contention remains funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps.  The Senate measure would cut about $4 billion in funding for the program over the next decade, while the House version would slash nearly $40 billion.

 

Weekly Legislative Report Oct 18, 2013

 

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Agriculture

House and Senate negotiators are hoping to meet when the Senate returns from their recess on October 28 to work on the new $500 billion U.S. farm bill, more than a year past due.

 

The bill is expected to cut funding for conservation programs but expand by $1 billion a year through the federally subsidized crop insurance program, which now costs around $9 billion annually.

 

House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) will chair the conference committee formed to write a compromise bill between the House and Senate versions.  The bill will likely be difficult to reconcile given the radically different proposals for food stamps.

 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) led the GOP campaign to tighten eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, ending benefits to nearly 4 million people in 2014, and saving $39 billion over 10 years.  His targeted cuts are nearly 10 times the amount proposed by the Senate, which focused on closing loopholes on utility costs.

 

The initial version of the House farm bill (H.R. 1947) went to the floor in June and had $20 billion in food stamp cuts.  The bill failed to pass because the cuts were too small to satisfy Tea Party-influenced conservatives, and too steep for Democrats.  There are other differences besides the SNAP cuts in the House and Senate bills, mostly over agricultural programs, but in comparison, will be much easier to resolve.

 

Appropriations/Budget

 

After 16 days of a partial government shutdown, President Obama signed a bipartisan deal approved by Congress to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling early Thursday morning.

 

Despite the weeks of bitter debate and stalemate between Republicans and Democrats, it took less than three hours for the House and Senate to approve the package.  Lawmakers voted just hours before the October 17 deadline set by the Treasury Department for raising the borrowing limit.  The House voted 285-144 to pass the bill (H.R. 2775) -87 Republicans and 198 Democrats voted yes and 144 Republicans votes no- which would fund the government until January 15 and raise the debt ceiling until February 7, just after the Senate voted 81-18 on the same measure.

 

As part of the broader fiscal deal, both chambers agreed to reconcile their budget resolutions adopted earlier this year (H Con Res 25, S Con Res 8) and report by December 13.  House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) will lead the budget negotiations.  In a joint statement the members stated, “We hope to restore stability to the budget process and end the lurching from crisis to crisis.”

 

Also included in the deal was a provision that provides $2.9 billion for a dam construction project in Illinois.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) clarified in a post-vote news conference that the provision was not an earmark, and that it would have cost $80 million to stop that project, which has been ongoing since 1988.  The bill provides an additional $636 million for fighting wildfires if existing funding becomes exhausted, and it allows up to $450 million in emergency relief funding, above the current $100 million cap, to states dealing with a natural disaster.  That allows more funding for Colorado in response to recent flooding.

Defense

The debt ceiling and continuing resolution deal punts the issue of defense spending and sequester for this fiscal year, leaving the upcoming House-Senate budget conference and the January 15 continuing resolution expiration as the two key markers.  As the government resumes normal operations, there are several scenarios that could play out.

 

There are several possible outcomes that could occur, some of the scenarios that could play out are as follows: a budget agreement for FY14 that would hold discretionary spending at last year’s $986B level; the Pentagon gets additional flexibility in FY14 to shift money around to protect priorities; a longer-term budget deal is reached that recalibrates the sequester ramp to be more back-loaded (while still scoring as savings); a healthy increment of prior-year unobligated funds can be tapped to offset sequester again, and; the Overseas Contingency Operations budget provides a buffer in operations and maintenance that helps prevent shortfalls.  Some less than favorable scenarios that could also occur are: if discretionary spending is reduced to below $967 billion; unobligated balances dry up, and program spending will have to be further reduced.

 

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the House will return on Tuesday, and the Senate has recessed until the week of October 28.  Therefore, the Janet Yellen confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee to replace Ben Bernanke as Chair of the Federal Reserve will be taken up when they return from the break.  The Senate will also vote on a motion to limit debate on the nomination of Richard Griffin, Jr., to be general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

 

In addition to the nomination debate, senators are also preparing to enter into budget negotiations with the House, as part of an agreement reached Wednesday.  The Senate first passed a bill (H.R. 2775) that would provide continuing appropriations for government operations through January 15 and allow federal borrowing to continue through February 7.  It was cleared by the House and signed by President Barack Obama early Thursday morning.  As part of the arrangement to get to that vote, senators agreed to begin negotiations on dueling budget resolutions (H Con Res 25, S Con Res 8).

 

Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) will lead the budget discussions.  The Senate’s conference team consists of 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans, who will be expected to report back on negotiations by December 13, 2013.

 

In addition to the fight over government spending and borrowing, disagreements over the health care overhaul bumped another bill from the floor late last month.  An energy efficiency bill (S. 1392) hit an early roadblock when Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) demanded a vote on a non-germane amendment to shift more government officials to health care exchanges created under the law and deny them and most congressional staff any employer contributions for their insurance premiums.  It is possible leaders could try and revive the bill, which stalled on the floor for a week without receiving a single vote.

 

Majority Leader Reid has also stated that an immigration policy overhaul is another high priority for him, and may be debated in coming months.

 

Weekly Legislative Report Oct 11, 2013

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Agriculture

The House could appoint farm bill conferees by this weekend after a Rules Committee meeting this afternoon on a motion to go to conference with the Senate.

All of the conferees are expected to come from the House Agriculture Committee, with the one exception of Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-FL) who would be a representative for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in the conference.  Southerland angered House Democrats this summer with his proposal to tighten work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients.

 

Cantor divided the House farm bill into an agriculture-only portion and a nutrition bill after the House rejected the original committee bill (H.R. 1947).  The House passed the agriculture-only bill (H.R. 2642) in July and a revised nutrition bill that includes the Southerland proposal as well as one that would enforce time limits for SNAP benefits provided to childless single able-bodied adults.  That bill (H.R. 3210) calls for nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts over 10 years while the Senate bill (S. 954) proposes $4 billion in SNAP reductions over the next decade.

 

The committee also is expected to consider nonbinding motions to instruct for House negotiators on the chamber’s farm bill.  Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has said he wants to emphasize the need for means-testing for federal subsidies of crop insurance premiums for farmers.  Ryan is a long-time advocate of reductions in farm program subsidies and has joined in the past with other House members in proposing limits.

 

Ryan’s proposal will likely have similar language to the Senate farm bill (S. 954) that would reduce the federal share of crop insurance premiums by 15 percentage points for farmers with adjusted gross income of more than $750,000. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has opposed such means testing as does the crop insurance industry.

 

The Rules Committee is scheduled to consider a motion by Reps. Joe Pitts (R-PA) and Danny Davis (D-IL) directing conferees to support repeal of U.S. sugar tariffs and a revamp of federal policy to allow more imported sugar into the U.S.  Agriculture Committee leaders opposed the language, saying it could raise the price of sugar.

Appropriations/Budget

The Federal Government has now reached the eleventh day of its partial shutdown, and talks continue between Congressional leaders and President Obama about how to end the fiscal stalemate.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to work on and pass mini-funding bills to operate selective functions of the government.  This week in the Senate, lawmakers passed by unanimous consent a bill funding military death benefits (H.J. Res. 91). The House passed the bill yesterday and it now goes to the President for his signature.  House members this week also passed the following partial funding measures:

 

  • H.J. Res. 90 – Flight Safety Act
  • H.J. Res. 91 – Honoring the Families of Fallen Soldiers Act
  • H.J. Res. 89 – Federal Worker Pay Fairness, which covers the salaries of some federal employees
  • H.R. 3273 – Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth, which creates a “super committee” to resolve the current budget impasse
  • H.J. Res. 90 – Flight Safety Act, which funds the Federal Aviation Administration
  • H.J. Res. 84 – Head Start for Low-Income Children.

 

House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and other GOP leaders met with President Obama on Thursday to present a proposal for a six-week increase in the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling to before the debt limit is reached on the October 17 default deadline.  The White House had indicated earlier Thursday that a short-term debt-limit extension may be accepted, but would insist on also including a plan to end the shutdown.

Today, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said that negotiators are now seeking a deal that could raise the debt limit and reopen the government, giving the parties time to discuss more long-term fiscal issues in a conference committee.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has proposed another plan which would trim entitlement benefits by requiring wealthier recipients to pay higher premiums for Medicare coverage, make Medigap policies more efficient and less costly.  He also proposed that federal employees contribute more to their retirement and that a tax overhaul based on a developing plan from Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI).

A Republican Conference meeting has been scheduled for Saturday.

Taxes

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) recently organized a poll indicating that most consumers are aware they owe sales tax on online purchases, and support paying those taxes at the time of the sale.  Additionally, ICSC said the poll indicated support for federal legislation that would support the collection of sales tax at the time of purchase.  This is good news for advocates of the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), a bill that would allow states to collect sales taxes from remote retailers with no physical presence in their state.

 

Currently, online sellers are already required to collect sales tax from customers in their own states, but under the Supreme Court’s 1992 holding in Quill v. North Dakota, retailers don’t always have to collect.  This means consumers are supposed to claim every online purchase where a sales tax wasn’t paid.  The poll shows that consumers recognize the burden is on the consumers, and that perhaps it should be on the retailers instead.  However, several other polls relating the this legislation have been released in the past few months, with varying results depending on whether the organization is in support or opposed to the MFA.

 

The Senate passed their version of the bill (S. 743) in February, and the House has yet to take it up.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has said the legislation will need to be revised to address the complexity of sales taxes among different states, and is hoping to schedule a hearing on online sales taxes as he drafts a new bill.

 

Washington Outlook

On Thursday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed cloture on the motion to proceed to a bill (S. 1569) that would suspend the debt limit until December 31, 2014.  That vote is expected Saturday, paving the way for a final vote on the measure October 16, barring an agreement to shorten debate time and move up the votes.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans continue to work on a tentative proposal that would reopen the government and address the need to raise the debt ceiling.  The proposal, which is being written by Susan Collins (R-ME), would repeal or delay the 2.3 percent medical device tax under the Affordable Care Act.  The lost revenue would be replaced with “pension smoothing,” a strategy that would allow private businesses to lower their pension contributions in the near future, in exchange for higher payments down the line.  According to Collins, this would produce tax revenue by lowering their deductions.  The plan would also call for income verification for those receiving benefits under the health care law and give federal agencies flexibility to deal with the spending cuts under sequestration during the next two years.

The hope is that the subsidy verification process will appeal to House Republicans, who maintain that the Department of Health and Human Services is going to rely on an honor system that will make the subsidies subject to fraud.  However a similar bill (H.R. 2775) that would have required HHS to set up a verification system passed the House in September, but was vetoed by the White House, who argued there is already a system in place.

Republicans have said they will not add policy riders to the measure, on the condition that the time is used for budget talks, including ways to overhaul the tax code and entitlement programs, as well as a long-term debt solution.  Although, Reid has said he will not negotiate on any legislation until the government is re-opened.

Weekly Legislative Report Sept 27, 2013

 

J.R. Reskovac

Sarah Strup

Appropriations/Budget

This afternoon, the Senate voted 54-44 to pass a stopgap spending measure to avert a government shutdown.  The temporary FY14 spending measure (H J Res 59) would fund the government through November 15 at an annualized post-sequester rate of $986.3 billion.

Before voting on final passage, the Senate adopted, 54-44, an amendment that changed the end date to November 15 and removed House language that would defund the 2010 health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).  The House-passed version would have funded the government through December 15.  FY13 spending runs out on October 1, and House Republican leadership is expected to respond to take up the amended measure this weekend.  However, House John Boehner (R-OH) said on Thursday that they will not accept the Senate version as-is.

Energy

As lawmakers continue to work on a comprehensive tax overhaul, 24 free-market groups that are opposed to a federal production tax credit for renewable power are speaking out against another extension.

A 2.3-cents-per-kilowatt hour credit is set to expire at the end of the year, and these groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, wrote on Tuesday to every member of Congress opposing any extension or phase-out of the tax credit.  They argue that the credit doesn’t produce cheaper energy, distorts markets, and is inefficient.  Some pro wind energy groups have tried to compromise by proposing to phase down the tax credit over a period of years.

However, opponents counter that a gradual phase-out or extension does not address any of the problems that arise from government backing for wind energy, and the production tax credit in its current form already has a phase-out built in, wind farm projects may claim the tax credit for 10 years following receiving an investment letter.

But lawmakers in both parties have expressed doubts that a bipartisan tax deal can be reached in the current political climate.  Tax “extenders” packages have become a year-end routine for Congress, but it appears that the question of how to address expiring energy provisions has yet to receive much attention.  Congress last year extended the credit for 12 months and modified it to allow developers to claim for any projects that start construction before the end of the year.

Miscellaneous

Wednesday, the Senate cleared a bill (S. 793) by unanimous consent that would require the State Department to submit a strategy to overhaul the management of the Organization of American States.  It would require the State Department to promote the adoption of an assessed fee structure in which no member state would pay more than 50 percent of the organization’s assessed fees.  The House passed the bill on July 8 by a vote of 383-24.  The president is expected to sign the measure into law.

The Senate cleared by unanimous consent a House-passed bill (H.R. 3092) that would reauthorize the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on Wednesday. The House passed the measure on September 17, in a 407-2 vote.  The legislation would renew a 1984 law (P.L. 98-473) that created the center, which is a national clearinghouse of information on missing children that has helped return them to their families.  The bill would authorize $200 million over the next five years, most of which would be used for Justice Department grants to fund the center’s operations.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate passed by voice vote an amended bill (S. 252), sponsored by Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would reauthorize through fiscal 2018, current law (P.L. 109-450) addressing pregnancy-related deaths and preterm labor.  As amended, the measure would authorize $1.9 million for each of fiscal 2014 through 2018 for public and health care provider education on prematurity, and another $1.9 million for each of fiscal 2014 through 2018 for research on preterm labor and delivery and outcomes of preterm and low birth-weight infants.

Thursday, the Senate cleared legislation (H.R. 527) by voice vote that would allow the Federal Helium Reserve to continue selling crude helium after the program’s debt is repaid.  It would require that beginning in 2014, helium sales be made through market-based auctions and would provide for the termination of federal involvement in helium sales and distribution by September 30, 2021.

Water Resources

After negotiations on global warming legislation collapsed in the Senate, but the idea of establishing funding for water project grants was revived in a bill (S. 1508) introduced last week by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Harry Reid (D-NV).

The bill would authorize the establishment of an EPA-managed Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Program that would distribute $50 million through fiscal 2018.  The grants would go to water authorities and other entities to help prepare and protect drinking and wastewater infrastructure from future damage related to extreme weather.

Lawmakers established a similar resiliency fund for the nation’s transit systems in last year’s surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141), but it remained unfunded until Congress provided money for cleanup from Sandy (PL 113-1; PL 113-2) earlier this year.  Although the water resiliency bill has strong support among Democrats, it wasn’t attached to a bipartisan water resources authorization (S. 601) that passed the Senate in May.  Similar language also is not included in the House water resources bill (H.R. 3080), which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved by voice vote last week.

Republican lawmakers have previously opposed to providing up-front funding for resiliency projects.  In a report accompanying their FY14 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill (H.R. 2610), House appropriators expressed their resistance to the Administration’s $25 million request for transportation resiliency programs, saying the panel “prefers to evaluate the methods, oversight and effectiveness of how this money and this program is administered before committing new funds in 2014.”

Despite support of the legislation, many lawmakers and special interest groups say the focus should be on getting the water resources bills to a conference and to Obama’s desk by the end of the year.

Washington Outlook

House Republicans will meet Saturday at noon to take up the Senate’s temporary FY14 spending measure (H J Res 59).  House leadership will have to decide whether to continue to use the Continuing Resolution as a vehicle to pursue its agenda against Obamacare or alternatively, attach a provision to a debt ceiling bill.

Some House members have offered potential alternatives to defunding Obamacare, including a one-year delay of the individual insurance mandate or repealing the law’s medical device tax.  The House could also pass a week-long stopgap measure to give Congress more time to negotiate a deal.  The federal government will shut down on Tuesday, October 1st if Congress does not pass a stopgap measure.

Also ahead, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced the U.S. will reach its debt limit no later than October 17th.  The Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges are scheduled to rollout on Tuesday, October 1st.  Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei authorized newly elected President Hasan Rouhani to engage in negotiations with the U.S. over its nuclear program.