Monthly Archives: February 2014

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 14, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

 

Appropriations/Budget

The Senate on Wednesday voted 55-43 to clear legislation (S. 540) to suspend the debt limit until March 15, 2015, without any policy riders attached.  Senators earlier voted to end debate, 67-31, with 12 Republicans joining all Democrats and independents to advance the bill.

The House sent the debt limit extension to the Senate on Tuesday, by a vote of 221-201.  All but two House Democrats pushed it to passage, and only 28 Republicans voted for it.  Nearly 90 percent of the House GOP who voted opposed the measure.

House leadership had originally scheduled a vote on the debt limit extension for Wednesday, but moved the vote up a day so members could leave Washington before a predicted snowstorm hits the region.  It had also reversed course Tuesday morning on attaching any policy riders, such as restoring cuts to military pension cost-of-living adjustments and creating a fund for an overhaul of the Medicare sustainable growth rate.

A suspension of the debt limit enacted in the deal that ended the October shutdown (P.L. 113-46) expired February 7.  Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said last week that the “extraordinary measures” to sustain U.S. borrowing would likely not last beyond February 27.  Congress is also scheduled to be on recess through the week of Presidents Day, which added urgency to clearing the debt limit extension before departing in time to avoid the snowstorm.

In other budget news, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) confirmed Wednesday it will release the President’s FY15 budget request in two parts, with the majority to be issued on March 4 and more detailed information to be released on March 11.  OMB said the main budget volume, key proposals, summary tables, agency-level information and the detailed appendix would be included in the first March 4 release.  The budget’s historical tables and analytical perspectives volume will come the following week.  OMB said the two-stage release should not affect congressional handling of the president’s request since all relevant information for Congress will be included in information released on March 4.

Defense

The Senate on Wednesday cleared legislation that would strip from the December budget deal a cut in military retiree pensions and replace it with future reductions in mandatory spending.

Senators voted 95-3 to back the legislation (S. 25) after the House advanced the legislation on Tuesday, 326-90.  The new bill would modify the budget agreement (P.L. 113-67), which included a 1 percent reduction in the annual cost-of-living adjustment for the pensions of military retirees under age 62 and would extend sequestration for mandatory programs, including Medicare, for one year, until fiscal 2024, to offset the cost of the bill.  Under the legislation, the pension adjustment would apply only to members or former members of the armed forces who joined the military after January 1, 2014. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that reducing the cost-of-living adjustment would save approximately $6.2 billion from fiscal 2016, when the cut was to take effect, through fiscal 2023.  Members of both parties expressed displeasure with the offset.  But ahead of the vote, senators conceded that the House-passed measure was likely the best option to repeal the pension cut, which is politically unpopular with both parties.

Transportation

Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara Boxer (D-CA) announced Wednesday that the committee should be marking up a five- or six-year surface transportation authorization in April.  The bill will not include a title to fix the Highway Trust Fund, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee; however, Boxer said that her panel’s bill would lay out a marker for the tax writers to meet.

Because federal fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993 and motorists are driving fewer miles in more fuel-efficient vehicles, receipts from gas and diesel taxes have not kept pace with authorized spending.  To plug the gap, the 2012 highway law (P.L. 112-141) included more than $21 billion in general-fund transfers to meet authorized obligations.  In the absence of a long-term fix for the trust fund, Congress cleared only a two-year surface transportation authorization in 2012.  Boxer said that she and the panel’s ranking Republican David Vitter of Louisiana plan to write the longer-term federal highway and transit policy legislation this year.

Vitter and Boxer hope that mapping out a five- or six-year bill will encourage incoming Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and ranking Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah to find a way to fix the trust fund.

Washington Outlook

The House and Senate have both adjourned for the President’s Day holiday and will be in recess all next week.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of February 24-28.

Weekly Legislative Report Jan 31, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Agriculture

The House on Wednesday voted 251-166 to pass a $956 billion Farm Bill (H.R. 2642). 103 Democrats voted no and 63 Republicans voted no.  The chief Democratic complaint was cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP- formerly known as food stamps) and the chief GOP complaints were cost and the perception that the bill was forced through the House.

The bill essentially serves as the federal government’s five-year plan for agriculture and food policy, which encompasses commodity programs, trade, conservation, rural development, forestry, biofuels, nutrition, food stamps, horticulture, and crop insurance, among other items.

Even though $8 million was cut from the program, SNAP still contains the majority of the spending in the bill ($756 billion out of $956 billion).  The original House proposal would have cut $39 billion from food stamps, while the Senate-passed bill called for a $4 billion cut.  The deal would further eliminate $5 billion in direct payments to farmers.  It would instead expand crop insurance and create two subsidy programs that could ultimately give farmers access to more funds than under the previous farm program authorization.  It also includes a one-year extension, at a cost of $410 million, of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, a critical source of revenue to states with large amounts of federal land.

The Senate is expected to clear the bill next week, and President Obama has said that he will sign the bill “as it is currently designed.”

Appropriations/Budget

The Obama Administration announced that the White House will release their Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal on March 4, which is a month after the February 3 statutory deadline.

House and Senate appropriators may pre-negotiate the spending levels for the 12 annual FY15 discretionary spending bills instead of waiting for Congress to pass a budget resolution.  This would break with tradition, but allow the appropriations process to be more predictable than it has been in recent years since the December budget deal set a top line spending level for both FY14 and FY15 at $1.014 trillion.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has previously said he will write a budget resolution this spring, but Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have not yet signaled their plans to write one, or bring one to the floor, in the Senate this year.

Education

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) cast doubt this week on the prospects of Congress passing a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this year.  The 2008 bill (P.L. 110-315) expired at the end of last year, and in the meantime the House and Senate have been holding multiple hearings on the legislation.

Harkin noted that he believes his committee can reach a bi-partisan consensus on the bill, but because 2014 is an election year, he is less certain about the prospects for Senate floor consideration or a final compromise with the House.

Instead, Harkin (who is retiring at the end of this year) will focus his efforts on passing a broad early learning measure, expanding pre-school enrollment and a job training bill (S. 1356) that his committee approved last summer.

Taxes

House Republicans are developing a new online sales tax vehicle that would cede to states key decisions such as a possible tax-collection exemption for small businesses.  GOP House members are looking at several alternatives to the Senate-passed Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 743) that they predict has little chance of being cleared in the House.  However, lawmakers still believe that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and are working on how they can gain support from the more conservative chamber.

 

The Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA) would require out-of-state vendors to collect a state’s sales taxes on any transactions for goods shipped to that state’s residents.  The measure was passed in the Senate last May by a vote of 69-27, after a key compromise was worked out to exempt small businesses that earned $1 million or less in gross sales.

 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is working with Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) on a draft bill that would provide states with flexibility to make their own decisions on how to enforce online sales taxes.  Chaffetz said the new bill would omit any small business exemptions, leaving those decisions up to the states.

 

Supporters of the Senate bill said they were concerned the House bill would give too much power to states to tailor online sales taxes to penalize out-of-state vendors.  MFA sponsor Senator Enzi (R-WY) said he hopes the House could pass a bill, and that differences then could be worked out in conference negotiations.  Like the emerging House bill, Enzi said the Senate-passed bill was intended to protect states’ rights.

 

Washington Outlook

The Senate will reconvene on Monday to resume consideration of the conference report to the five-year farm bill (H.R. 2642).  It is expected to pass easily.

 

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will then bring to the floor a bill (S. 1950) to authorize benefits for veterans.  Among the new benefits and expansion of existing ones that the bill would authorize is one that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care and nursing home services to veterans enrolled in the VA health care system.  The bill includes new veterans’ employment and career transition programs, including language requiring federal agencies to develop plans to hire an aggregate of 15,000 veterans to fill vacancies over the next five years.

 

The veterans bill also would repeal a contentious cut in the cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees under the age of 62 that was contained in the budget agreement (P.L. 113-67).  Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-VT) said last week he wants to tap overseas contingency operations funds to pay for the $30 billion package, which is expected to draw Republican opposition.

 

In the weeks ahead, Reid said he wants the Senate to consider action on a handful of nominations and legislation, including measures to address sexual assault in the military and a proposal to extend expanded unemployment insurance benefits.

 

On the House side, House Republicans are currently meeting at their annual strategy retreat in Maryland and mapping out their plans for the debt ceiling negotiations and immigration reform with a game plan likely to emerge tomorrow afternoon.