Monthly Archives: March 2014

Weekly Legislative Report Mar 28, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said Wednesday that subcommittees will mark up Military Construction-VA and Legislative Branch bills next week, making those the first two spending bills handled in the committee.

Since the December budget deal (P.L. 113-67) largely flatlines discretionary top lines for defense and domestic programs, the allocations will likely be similar to the allocations used in the fiscal 2014 omnibus Congress cleared in January.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said Tuesday that Military Construction-VA will be among the first three measures the Senate committee marks up later this spring.

 

Health

Late Tuesday night, House leadership posted a 12-month sustainable growth rate (SGR) fix.  On Thursday, the House passed the fix by voice vote.  The voice vote (as opposed to a recorded vote) was required because leadership put the bill on the suspension calendar, which means 2/3 of the House had to vote for it.  The House went into a brief recess when it became clear the votes were not there (it would probably garner enough votes if only a simple majority was needed).

Physician groups oppose the 12-month fix and are advocating for the full reform package that was previously agreed upon by the 3 committees of jurisdiction.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) was also lobbying his colleagues this week on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol in favor of the permanent deal, but Republicans have said his proposed offset for the package, using the savings from the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a non-starter.

Assuming Wyden cannot get a deal on the full reform package over the weekend, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the 12-month fix bill on Monday at 5pm.  The bill will be subject to a 60-vote threshold for passage.  Senate leaders had hoped to consider the bill by unanimous consent on Thursday following the House vote, but Sen. Coburn (R-OK) objected, forcing the vote.

Labor

The Senate voted 65-34 on Thursday to move legislation that would restore federal unemployment benefits.

The key test vote likely clears the way for passage of legislation that would restore Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), which expired December 28, 2013.  The agreement would provide for a 5 month extension retroactive to December 28.

The Senate ended debate on the motion to proceed to H.R. 3979, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which will be used as the legislative vehicle for the jobless aid.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) made comments earlier in the week indicating that he is not inclined to take up the bill in the House.

Transportation

The likelihood of a permanent fix for the Highway Trust Fund is losing ground, leaving lawmakers to come up with alternative fixes to keep the fund afloat.  Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said Thursday she’s aiming to identify a way to patch the dwindling Highway Trust Fund only “for four or five years,” indicating that the most difficult legislative work, either raising the gas tax or replacing it entirely, will be kicked years down the road, or at least until after this year’s midterms.

Congress pumped more than $21 billion into the trust fund to pay for a two-year authorization of highway, bridge and transit programs that became law (P.L. 112-141) in 2012.  However, higher fuel prices have Americans driving fewer miles in more efficient vehicles, which has significantly lessened the spending power of the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993.

Boxer and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) are leading efforts to write a new surface transportation authorization package, but finding the money for the multi-year authorization that states and highway builders want has proven a challenge.  There has been one proposal (H.R. 3636) to raise the gas tax, by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), but it does not have wide support.

A temporary solution to keep the trust fund solvent for a few years is the likely course of action.  House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) included a proposal to feed the trust fund with $126 billion from a corporate tax overhaul, enough to keep highway, bridge and transit projects funded for another eight years.

President Obama’s FY15 budget proposal also included a corporate tax change that the White House says would be enough to put $302 billion into transportation projects over four years, including major boosts in spending on transit and passenger rail upgrades.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said earlier this month he expects a full reauthorization proposal to be sent to Congress sometime in April.  Boxer’s committee also plans to mark up a reauthorization measure sometime next month, with Shuster’s panel following in late spring or early summer.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate is scheduled to consider a bill (H.R. 4302) that would avert expected cuts in Medicare payments to physicians for one year.  The House passed the bill on Thursday.  If passed by the Senate, the measure would be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

 

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) said they are disappointed Congress is not acting on proposals to permanently replace the current sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula.  However, if Congress does not act by Tuesday, Medicare payments to physicians would be cut by 24 percent.

 

Senators are also scheduled to vote Monday on the motion to proceed to the bill (H.R. 3979) that would amend the tax code to ensure emergency services volunteers are not counted as employees under the requirements of the 2010 health care law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-152).  Democrats are planning to amend the House bill with language that would extend an expanded unemployment insurance program for five months.  Senators agreed to limit debate on the motion to proceed to the measure Thursday, although it could face another cloture vote before final passage.

 

In coming weeks the Senate Democrats have on their agenda a bill (S. 1737) that would raise the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over two years.  Senate moderates say they want the chamber’s leadership to cut a deal on a more modest increase in the minimum wage to expedite final action in an election year.

Weekly Legislative Report Mar 7, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and her House counterpart Harold Rogers (R-KY) began meetings this week to set an aggressive timetable for fiscal 2015 spending bills pointing toward markups in May and floor action over the summer.

Mikulski said subcommittees will start marking up FY15 spending bills as early as May, and she will turn to full committee “markups and votes in late May and in June.”  Some spending bills could be considered on the Senate floor as early as June, Mikulski said.

Mikulski and Rogers hope to maintain momentum following the omnibus (P.L. 113-76) in order to accomplish a feat that has eluded Congress for two decades: enact all 12 spending bills individually by the October 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Budget

On Tuesday, President Obama sent Congress his fiscal 2015 budget.  The budget exceeds the spending caps set under the December budget deal by $56 billion due the proposed Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, which is aimed at bolstering research, strengthening preschool programs and investing in infrastructure, including national parks and veterans’ hospitals.  The $56 billion would be evenly split between defense and nondefense spending and would be offset by closing tax breaks and by making alternative spending cuts.  The President’s budget would also use $1.2 trillion in new deficit reduction over the next decade to replace sequestration starting in fiscal 2016 through a combination of new spending cuts, added tax revenue and the enactment of immigration reform legislation.

Members of Congress spoke out saying that the budget blueprint is “dead on arrival,” and Senate Democrats stated that they will not take the budget to the floor.

Business

The House Small Business Committee advanced several measures that would overhaul the federal contracting system.  The committee backed by voice vote legislation (H.R. 2751) to prohibit the use of reverse auctions for design and constructive services procurements.  It also endorsed in separate voice votes a bill (H.R. 4094) that would direct the Small Business Administration (SBA) to develop a plan to organize the data reported on bundled and consolidated contracts and a bill (H.R. 4093) that would revise prime and subcontract goals.

The panel also backed in separate voice votes:

• A bill (H.R. 2452) that would allow agencies to target certain federal contracts to women-owned firms.

• Legislation (H.R. 2882) that would authorize the SBA, instead of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to manage the verification process for small businesses owned by veterans.

• A bill (H.R. 776) that would increase the guarantee rate on the SBA’s preferred bonding program from 70 percent to 90 percent.

• An amended measure (H.R. 4121) that would require the SBA to use small-business development centers, which provide technical assistance for small businesses and entrepreneurs, for pilot programs.

Defense

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday that future spending cuts to the Defense Department would require the Army to cut up to 30,000 troops and require the Marine Corps to cut 7,000 troops and decommission an aircraft carrier.  The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, released alongside the President’s budget, laid out long term cuts including retirement of 80 Air Force aircraft and trimming orders of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

Environment

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee endorsed by voice vote an amended bill (H.R. 1786) that would reauthorize research on windstorms and methods to reduce the damage they cause.  The bill would reauthorize for three years the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, under which the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are tasked with different responsibilities.  The measure also would designate the NIST as the lead agency.

Health

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that individual health insurance plans that do not meet the health care law’s benefit requirements will be allowed to operate for an additional two years.  That will give state regulators and insurers the option of renewing plans until policy years that start on or before October 1, 2016.  The plan builds on an offer that President Barack Obama made in November.  He said that insurance plans that would otherwise end because they do not meet the standards of the health care law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-152) could continue for an additional year.

Water Resources

The House voted 306-91 on Tuesday to reduce flood-insurance rate increases.  The measure represents a bipartisan compromise to modify the Biggert-Waters law passed in 2012, which phases out federal subsidies in an attempt to shift more risk to property owners in flood-prone areas.  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters (D-CA) worked together to finalize the agreement.  Conservative Republicans criticized the changes to the law, with 126 Republicans voting in support of the bill and 86 voting against passage.  The measure now needs to be reconciled with the Senate version (S.1926) that passed in January.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate is expected to pass sexual assault legislation sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  They may also take up bills on health and safety standards on child care facilities, unemployment compensation, and flood insurance.

This week, senators rejected another sexual assault proposal (S. 1752) by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would require decisions to prosecute felony-level crimes, except those unique to the military, be made by experienced commissioned officers who are not in the alleged perpetrator’s chain of command.

McCaskill’s bill would allow special counsels for victims of sexual assault and rape, which were created under the defense policy bill, to provide advice on prosecutorial options.  It would also require evaluations to determine whether commanding officers established a command climate in which allegations of sexual assault are property reported and managed and fairly evaluated.  The measure would prohibit service members from introducing records of good conduct as evidence of innocence unless directly relevant to the defendants’ charges.  It also would establish of a confidential process for victim’s subsequently discharged from the military to challenge the terms or characterization of their discharge.

The Senate is also expected to begin consideration of a bill (S. 1086) next week that would impose new educational, health and safety standards on child care facilities that receive federal funding.

The legislation would reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant (P.L. 97-35), which funnels federal money to states to pay for day care for children in low-income families.  For FY14, Congress appropriated $2.4 billion in discretionary spending, about 7 percent more than the post-sequester FY13 funding, in addition to the $2.9 billion in mandatory funding the program has received every year since 2006.  Implementing the bill would cost $13.1 billion from FY15 through FY19, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Democrats may also seek action next week on two bills, one to extend a supplemental unemployment compensation program and another to ease expected flood insurance rate hikes.  The unemployment measure (S. 2077) filed this week by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) would extend the program for six months.  Republicans blocked previous attempts to continue the program as they sought votes on amendments to pay for the extension and modify benefits.  The aide said Democrats have offered Republicans votes on four amendments.

Supporters of the House-passed flood insurance compromise also are optimistic the Senate can clear the measure before the next recess, which starts March 17.  Under the House bill (H.R. 3370) individual property flood insurance premiums could not be raised by more than 18 percent annually.  FEMA is currently limited to a 20 percent increase under a 2012 law (P.L. 112-141) intended to require that all premiums reflect a property’s actual flood risk.  The Senate passed a measure (S. 1926) in January that would have delayed the flood insurance rate increases for four years.

 

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 28, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

 

 

Appropriations/Budget

The President’s FY15 budget will be released next Tuesday, March 4th.  OMB has said that this year they will release the budget in two stages, with the second part arriving on March 11th

Once the budget arrives on Capitol Hill, the FY15 appropriations process will officially begin.  Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has said her goal is to move all 12 of the annual spending bills to the floor individually before the end of the fiscal year on September 30 so that no continuing resolution is needed to carry funding past the November elections.

Defense

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will release a five-year plan on March 4 that boosts Pentagon spending by a total of $115 billion over sequestration spending caps, according to sources who have been briefed on the proposal.

Hagel on Monday will preview the plan, along with other key items included in DoD’s $496 billion 2015 budget proposal.  The budget proposal ignores federally mandated spending caps between 2016 and 2019, and the fiscal 2016 budget projection would be $36 billion over the sequester cap.

Also reportedly included in the DoD budget proposal are:

  • Recommendations to keep an aircraft carrier, but sideline half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet.  It would also retire the Air Force’s A-10 and U-2 fleets and sets the stage for retiring the KC-10 fleet and for delaying the Navy’s version of the F-35.
  • The plan proposes personnel cuts across all of the military services, but adds nearly 4,000 to the special operations ranks.
  • Calls for reducing the Army to between 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers and going as low as 420,000 if sequester remains.
  • A proposal to shrink the Marine Corps by 8,000 Marines to 182,000.  Total Corps end-strength drops to 175,000 if sequestration continues.
  • A proposal to cut 20,000 from the Army National Guard — dropping to 335,000 by 2019 — and 10,000 from the Army Reserve, bringing it to 195,000.
  • The proposal asks Congress to approve a base realignment and closure (BRAC) round in 2017.  This spring, DoD will begin a review of its infrastructure in Europe to recommend funding cuts on the continent, which are not subject to BRAC.
  • A plan to invest $1 billion in next-generation jet engine technology.
  • The Air Force would retire its entire A-10 attack jet fleet.  If sequestration remains in place, it would also retire its entire KC-10 fleet and reduce unmanned aircraft combat air patrols.
  • The Air Force also will propose retiring its entire Lockheed Martin U-2 spy plane fleet, and instead opt to replace the U-2 with the unmanned Northrop Grumman Global Hawk surveillance aircraft.
  • Recommendations to cancel the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program.

Transportation

This week President Obama unveiled a $302 billion, four-year surface transportation authorization blueprint ahead of the detailed plan that will be released with the White House’s fiscal 2015 budget, on March 4.

Obama limited the plan to just four years because that’s how long the funding source he identified to help finance the package would last, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on Thursday.  The cornerstone of Obama’s plan is a $150 billion investment, using funds attained through a corporate tax overhaul, to support the Highway Trust Fund.  Motor fuels taxes that support the fund haven’t been raised since 1993, and the fund is diminishing due to motorists driving fewer miles in more efficient vehicles.

Since the plan is only four years, it would leave the bigger question of finding a long-term funding solution to the next administration, although Foxx said state highway officials would be grateful for four years of secure funding.

Taxes

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) unveiled an overhaul of the U.S. tax code, which would involve major changes for both individuals and businesses.

Camp’s proposed framework would sharply cut back tax rates for individuals and corporations while eliminating or scaling back many of the tax breaks that fill the code, including the mortgage interest deduction considered a bedrock of the housing industry.  On the individual side of the code, the Camp proposes reducing the existing seven marginal brackets for individual income taxes to two, at rates of 10 percent and 25 percent, and applying a 10 percent surtax to certain professionals making more than $450,000 per year.  It would also whittle down the earned income tax credit, a refundable credit that helps the poor.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has spoken out saying he will not take up the legislation.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also reiterated that the Senate will not take up tax reform this year.

Water Resources

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Senate Environment and Transportation Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) worked this week on bridging differences between the House and Senate water resources authorization bills.

According to Shuster, Boxer has agreed to accept the House provision which would allow congress to retain the authority to sign off on Army Corps of Engineers dredging, navigation and flood control projects slated for federal funding.

The current Senate-passed bill (S. 601) would include all projects with final reports by the corps’ chief engineers reviewing costs, benefits and local support.  Projects that had received these final chief reports by the time the law is enacted would automatically be authorized.  Shuster objected that this would cede too much legislative authority to the executive branch.  Instead, the $3.1 billion House bill (H.R. 3080) listed 23 specific projects that had received corps approval.

Shuster also stated that the conferees are “within weeks” of bringing a conference agreement back to the House and Senate.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will proceed to executive session to consider the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  Cloture on the nomination is expected, despite strong Republican opposition, since a Senate precedent set late last year allows debate on nominations to be cut off by a simple majority vote.  Adegbile’s nomination advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines earlier this month.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also filed on the motion to proceed to S. 1086, the bill to reauthorize the Child Care Development Block Grant program, and Senators are expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.  Authorization of the program, which funds early childhood education and day care for children in low-income families, expired in 1996.  The grant program has been funded through appropriations measures since then.  The measure would reauthorize the block grants through fiscal 2019 and institute educational, health and safety standards for child care facilities that receive federal funding.  For example, the bill would require states receiving grant funds to conduct criminal background checks for child care staff.

The Senate also agreed to hold votes on two dueling measures to address sexual assault in the military, which would likely happen before the next recess on March 17.

One bill (S. 1752) was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and would require decisions to prosecute felony-level crimes, except those unique to the military, be made by experienced commissioned officers who are not in the alleged perpetrator’s chain of command.  Another bill (S. 1917), by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) would expand upon new defense policy protections made through the fiscal 2014 defense authorization law (P.L. 113-66).