Monthly Archives: May 2014

Weekly Legislative Report May 23, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved their spending allocations, known as 302(b) allocations, along party lines (16-14) at the full committee markup of the FY15 Military Construction-VA and Agriculture spending bills.  The allocations adhere to the overall $1.014 trillion discretionary top line set as part of the bipartisan budget deal in December.

During the markup, the committee’s Republicans criticized Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) for relying too heavily on budget “gimmicks,” including making changes to mandatory programs and utilizing a non-capped war spending account, to make the numbers work.

Mikulski’s plan would cover the $4.3 billion in previously unexpected cuts that stem from an accounting disparity between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) related to government earnings from Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages by reducing the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee allocation and moving $4.3 billion of its funds to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a war account not subject to the same tight budget caps.  Republican Committee members are not happy with the idea of using OCO funds to shield domestic programs from the cut.  To address the same shortfall, the House reduced funding for the THUD bill.

Agriculture

Senate appropriators advanced the FY15 Agriculture spending bill, subject to amendments, in an en bloc voice vote Thursday.  The bill proposes $2.588 billion for the Food and Drug Administration, which is $36 million above FY14.  The agency would receive $23 million to continue implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (P.L. 111-353).

The Senate Appropriations bill would provide $20.6 billion in discretionary funds for programs at the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.  Discretionary funding is $90 million below the FY14 enacted level, but $228 million above the budget request, according to the subcommittee.

The Appropriations Committee still has to debate an amendment that delays the next round of school meal requirements that would require providers to serve foods with lower sodium levels and 100 percent whole-grain products.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee approved its FY15 spending bill on Tuesday with language that would require the Agriculture Department to establish a waiver process for school meal providers who can show economic hardship because of the rules.

Milcon-VA

Thursday, the Senate Military Construction-Veterans Affairs panel advanced, 30-0, the draft FY15 spending bill that would provide $71.5 billion in discretionary funds, a $1.8 billion decrease from the 2014 enacted level, for the VA and military construction accounts of the Defense Department.

All told, VA discretionary and mandatory funding would total $158.6 billion, which is $10.7 billion more than FY14.  The bill’s $93.5 billion in mandatory funding is equal to the president’s request and $8.8 billion above the FY14 enacted level.

Responding to the VA medical care concerns, appropriators adopted by voice vote an amendment by Jerry Moran, (R-KS) that would give the VA secretary the authority to discharge or remove employees from the Senior Executive Service if the secretary believes it is warranted.  Similar legislation (H.R. 4031) passed the House 390-33 on Wednesday.

Funding for military construction in the bill would meet the administration’s request of $6.6 billion, which is a steep $3.2 billion cut from the $9.8 billion enacted in FY14.  The allocation includes $4.3 billion for military construction projects as well as $1.2 billion for military family housing. The measure would provide $380 million for the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure fund.  The allocation is $110 million above the president’s request in order to expedite environmental cleanup of former BRAC locations.

Transportation-HUD

The House Appropriations Committee advanced the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development spending bill 28-21 on Thursday, making it the fourth spending measure to be marked up by the full House Appropriations Committee. The measure would provide $52 billion in discretionary spending for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments, which is $1.2 billion, or 2.4 percent, higher than FY14.

The bill is expected on the House floor next month.  The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark-up their version of the bill on June 5.

Defense

The House on Thursday passed its FY15 defense authorization bill (H.R. 4435) by 325-98 after disposing of 169 amendments, debating all proposals Wednesday night and holding a rapid-fire vote session Thursday morning before final passage.

The bill adheres to the discretionary top-line figure established by December budget law (P.L. 113-67), but largely avoids controversial issues such as an additional round of base closures, prosecution of sexual assaults in the military, illegal immigrants serving in the armed forces, overhauling military compensation and retirement of weapons systems.

The measure would authorize $592.9 billion for discretionary Pentagon and Defense-related programs in FY15, $2.7 billion less than the president’s request, including $79.4 billion to support overseas contingency operations, including the war in Afghanistan.  The bill does not, however, specify where the overseas contingency funds are to be spent because the administration has yet to formally submit a detailed budget request for the account to Congress.

Later Thursday afternoon, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved its FY15 defense authorization bill (S. 2289).  Now that the House and the Senate committee have acted on the authorization bill comes the most time-consuming part of the process, waiting for it to come to the Senate floor.

Water Resources

Senators on Thursday voted 91-7 to clear a conference report that would authorize funds for dozens of waterway and environmental projects, sending the measure to the President’s desk for signature.

The conference report on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act or WRRDA (H.R. 3080) would authorize spending on 34 port, inland waterway and environmental restoration projects. The measure also introduces an authorization process that retains congressional authority over project approvals without using earmarks.

The measure, which the House backed 412-4 on Tuesday, would authorize projects that result in federal spending of $5.4 billion through fiscal 2019 and $12.3 billion over the next decade, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.  The bill would deauthorize $18 billion in old projects considered obsolete.

The legislation also would change how local sponsors seek federal support for their projects.  They would no longer request earmarks directly from lawmakers, as was the case with the 2007 authorization (P.L. 110-114). Instead, they would present projects to their regional Corps of Engineers post for review.  After positively reviewing a project, the corps would submit annual reports to Congress, which will hold hearings on the projects.

Lawmakers and industry groups have described it as a “jobs bill” both for the construction work it would generate and the trade competitiveness it could bring.

 

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will be in recess while the House remains in session.

The full House is expected to take up a two-year intelligence authorization (H.R. 4681) next week, which was advanced by the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.  The bill would authorize classified funding levels for U.S. intelligence agencies for FY14 and FY15 and includes measures designed to mitigate the risk of information leaks like those by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security will mark-up their FY15 spending bill next Wednesday.  The Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee will reportedly markup their FY15 bill on June 10th. The full Appropriations Committee would also take up the bill the same week.

Weekly Legislative Report May 16, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

This week, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) delivered informal top-line spending allocations, or 302(b) allocations, to the leaders of the committee’s 12 subcommittees, allowing the subcommittees to begin drafting the annual spending measures.

Senator Harkin (D-IA) said the allocation he was given for the Labor-HHS-Education bill is “very close” to the currently enacted discretionary level of $156.8 billion. However, top appropriators who oversee nondefense spending bills were told their allocations are subject to change depending on how Mikulski decides to dole $4.3 billion in previously unexpected cuts that stem from an accounting disparity between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) related to government earnings from Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages. 

Mikulski has until May 22, the date the full Appropriations committee is schedule to markup its first FY15 bills (Military Construction-VA and Agriculture), to finalize the allocations.

Defense

Next week, the full House will debate and vote on the annual defense authorization bill (H.R. 4435), while Senate Armed Services writes its own version of the measure.  The House is expected to pass the $601 billion measure.

Taxes

Senate Republicans blocked efforts on Thursday to move a measure that would extend expired tax breaks, the second time this week a bipartisan bill has stalled in the chamber over procedural disputes.

The Senate voted 53-40 on a motion to close debate on the substitute amendment carrying legislation that would extend nearly all of 55 tax credits and deductions that expired at the end of 2013.

Before the cloture vote ended, Reid changed his vote so that he could bring the cloture vote back to the Senate at a later time. Leaders may be able to reach an amendment deal over the weekend and reconsider the vote early next week.

Transportation

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved by voice vote a surface transportation reauthorization that would maintain funding for highways and bridges at current levels for six years, plus adjustments for inflation.  The amended bill (S. 2322) would authorize an estimated $265 billion for federal programs between fiscal 2015 and 2020.

Aside from the bill’s core highway programs, it would authorize $400 million per year for grants going to projects of a regional or national significance, similar to an existing Transportation Department program created as part of the 2009 stimulus (P.L. 111-5) known as TIGER.  The new grant program would be subject to increased congressional oversight, with DOT having to notify Congress 30 days before awarding grantees. Lawmakers could also block funding with a joint resolution of disapproval.  The legislation would also authorize a new freight program beginning at $400 million for FY16, growing by the same amount each year, eventually reaching $2 billion annually in FY20.

The bill avoids some of the broader policy overhauls taken on in the 2012 highway law (P.L. 112-141), but it does alter the Transportation Alternatives program, which sets aside a small amount of funding for bike paths, pedestrian facilities and other non-traditional highway uses.

The legislation is one part of what’s expected to be a larger package that will include safety, transit and titles from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation, Banking Housing and Urban Development and Finance committees.  The Senate Finance Committee will have to bear the largest burden of finding up to $18 billion per year to pay for authorized obligations not covered by the Highway Trust Fund’s fuel and excise taxes.

Water Resources

House and Senate leaders filed a bi-partisan conference report of the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) on Thursday.  The final bill includes authorizations for 34 projects evaluated by the Army Corps of Engineers, offset with $18 billion in deauthorizations.

The House is expected to take it up as a suspension on Tuesday, with the Senate likely acting later in the week.  Now that the bill has been filed, CBO can issue price tag for the final bill, which should be out before the House votes on Tuesday.

For a section by section summary of the WRRDA conference report click here, and for highlights from the report, click here.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, both House and Senate lawmakers are scheduled to mark up Agriculture spending bills, with debate on federal nutrition policies for schools and the Women, Infants and Children Program.

House appropriators will mark up the FY15 Transportation-HUD spending bill next Wednesday.  The House Rules Committee is expected to approve an open rule for the Commerce-Justice-Science bill at a 5 p.m. Monday markup.  The Rules Committee will also consider which amendments to the defense authorization bill (H.R. 4435) will reach the floor in a markup on Tuesday.

In the Senate, appropriators are scheduled to mark up their Military Construction-VA bill and vote on a plan to divvy $1.014 trillion among the 12 appropriations subcommittees into allocations known as 302(b)s.

 

Weekly Legislative Report May 9, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

On Thursday, House appropriators approved on a party line vote spending allocations, known as 302(b) allocations, at the full committee markup of the FY15 Commerce, Justice, Science bill.  The allocations adhere to the overall $1.014 trillion discretionary top line set as part of the bipartisan budget deal in December.  The CJS legislation contains $51.2 billion in total discretionary funding, which is a reduction of $398 million below the FY14 enacted level.  The bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.

Under the allocations, the Labor HHS bill would receive $155.7 billion, about $1 billion in budget authority less than FY14, and about $4 billion would be added to the Pentagon’s base budget.  This marks a dramatic shift from the allocations House and Senate appropriators set for the Labor HHS bill last year that were more than $42 billion apart.  The State-Foreign Operations, Energy-Water and Homeland Security bills would also see slight reductions, with slight increases or level funding for other measures.  A GOP committee aide said under Rogers’ blueprint, no bill would receive an increase of more than 2.3 percent above current funding levels or a decrease of more than 2.6 percent compared to FY14.

Many see these allocations as a notable sign that Rogers hopes to pass spending bills that have a chance of being reconciled with the Democratic-led Senate.  Rogers has said he expects to move most, if not all, of the spending bills by July Fourth.  During the markup, Democrats criticized some of the allocations, including Labor HHS and Interior-Environment, and said they would seek increases as those bills move through the appropriations process.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to formally adopt their 302(b) allocations at the first full committee markup, likely in late May or early June.

Defense

This week the House Armed Services Committee approved its FY15 defense policy bill (H.R. 4435) by a vote of 61-0, after rejecting many Pentagon cost-cutting proposals in the process.

Overall, the legislation would authorize $521.3 billion in national defense funding, in accordance with the December budget law (P.L. 113-67), and would authorize for $79.4 billion for overseas contingency operations.

Taxes

With the Internet Tax Freedom Act expiring on November 1, odds of an online sales tax bill passing this year have increased.  An online sales tax measure would most likely be included in the larger tax package, especially since the 15-year-old Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) qualifies as “must pass” legislation, therefore Congress is less likely to let it expire.

The online sales tax measure in its current form is called the Marketplace Fairness Act, and gives states the authority to collect sales tax from online purchase even if the retailer does not have a physical presence in the state.  It is very unlikely that the House would move forward with the Senate-passed bill (S. 743) without amending it first.  The House’s main concerns with the bill include putting undue burdens on small businesses, and the upkeep involved with having to calculate different sales tax for every state and locality.  The states wouldn’t have the authority to force the online retailers until the first day of the calendar quarter that is 90 days after enactment of the legislation, so this is very likely a 2015 event at the earliest.

Transportation

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will unveil their draft highway legislation on Monday, and have scheduled a markup of the bill for next Thursday.  Leaders of the EPW Committee have said the bill that would maintain federal-aid highway programs for six years at current funding levels plus inflation.

EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stated the bill would need to be funded at about $18 billion a year, which could mean the Finance Committee would need to come up with as much as $108 billion over that six years.  Separately, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will need to complete a transportation safety portion of the bill, while the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee provides a transit programs title.

Legislators need to pass a reauthorization bill before the Highway Trust Fund’s highway account reaches diminished levels in late July, which would force the Transportation Department to delay project cost reimbursements to states.  Current road, bridge and transit programs are slated to expire September 30 along with the 2012 highway measure (PL 112-141).

Water Resources

House and Senate lawmakers announced last night that they have come to an agreement on a long-awaited water resources bill.  The final Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) bill reportedly includes the House’s method of listing specific projects for authorization instead of the Senate’s system of giving automatic approval to projects with a chief’s report from the Army Corps of Engineers.  It is also fully offset with deauthorizations of old or outdated projects and does not include a National Endowment for the Oceans that was in the Senate bill.  Negotiators didn’t formally unveil any details — and won’t until the conference report is fully signed.

Next week the necessary paperwork will be finalized that will allow this signature jobs legislation to go before both the House and Senate for final passage and additional details will be released when the conference report is filed.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the House will be in recess and the Senate will be in session.

The Senate EPW Committee will unveil a draft six-year highway bill Monday, then mark up the bill Thursday.  The measure is expected to maintain federal aid programs at current funding levels plus inflation.  The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is scheduled to mark up an early education draft bill.

The Senate will likely abandon debate on an energy efficiency measure early next week, which also probably means no vote on a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.  Next on the agenda, Senators may take up tax extenders legislation.

Weekly Legislative Report May 2, 2014

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

The House passed the first two, and least contentious of twelve fiscal 2015 spending bills this week.  On Wednesday, House members voted 416-1 to pass the Military Construction- Veterans Affairs (H.R. 4486) appropriations bill and Thursday voted 402-14 to pass the Legislative Branch measure (H.R. 4487).

The Mil Con-VA bill would provide a combined $165 billion in FY15 spending for the Veterans Affairs Department and military construction accounts of the Defense Department.

Before passing the bill, the chamber adopted an amendment by voice vote that would prohibit funds allocated in the bill from being used to plan or execute an additional round of base realignment and closure, as well as one providing $20 million in additional funding for building a U.S. based missile defense site.  Senate companion legislation will likely be marked in the full committee May 22.

The Legislative Branch measure would provide $3.3 billion and includes an amendment providing $500,000 for sexual harassment training for House offices.  House members were able to reduce spending by proposing to end delivery of printed copies of the daily calendar and also statements of disbursements to member offices.  It would provide no added funding to member offices’ budgets, and would maintain a lawmaker pay freeze that began the same year.

The chamber rejected further cuts by defeating a proposed reduction in funding for the Capitol Visitors Center, as well as a plan to ban lease payments for lawmakers’ vehicles. The Senate has yet to unveil its version of the bill.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee approved a draft FY15 spending bill by voice vote on Wednesday.  The measure would reduce total discretionary spending levels, but expand on recent increases for law enforcement and space exploration.  They are scheduled to mark up the bill in full committee next week.

Defense

The last of six House Armed Services subcommittees voted Thursday to approve their portions of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill.

With the subcommittees on Readiness and on Tactical Air and Land Forces completing their work, the full committee is now set to finish writing the bill (H.R. 4435) on May 7 session and then send it to the full House.

The Readiness panel’s most notable action was its proposal to reject an administration request for a new base-closure commission in 2017.  The subcommittee’s legislation also would require congressional notification before the military buys alternative fuels for operational use, and it would prevent U.S. Transportation Command from using Russian-flagged airlift aircraft unless commanders certify each time that it’s mission-essential.

Science/Environment

After receiving criticism from some GOP lawmakers that the Obama Administration is trying to add funds for climate change research at the expense of extreme weather forecasts, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Undersecretary Kathryn Sullivan testified at a House Science Committee hearing on Wednesday to defend the agency’s budget request.  The budget request totals about $5.5 billion, representing a topline increase of $174.1 million, or about 3.2 percent, above the FY14 enacted levels.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) questioned the move, saying the President’s budget for 2015 puts $31 million into new climate change research, but none into forecasting.  Bridenstine and other GOP members asserted that the funds would be better used for severe weather forecasting, and improving lead times to serve more immediate needs.

Sullivan maintained that the agency needs to focus on climate research and the greater causes behind atmospheric changes that are threatening fisheries and impacting drought.  She told the panel that NOAA’s potentially life-saving, predictive capability “doesn’t come from understanding weather, it comes from understanding oceans and the atmosphere.”

Transportation

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx released “The GROW AMERICA Act” last week, a $302 billion, four-year surface transportation reauthorization proposal.  Lawmakers are facing a summer deadline to replenish the highway trust fund and DOT estimates the highway account will hit a critically low level that could require it to slow reimbursements to states by late July for qualifying project expenses.

Leaders of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee have said they plan to offer a proposal soon, and the Commerce Committee holds a hearing May 7 with Foxx as witness.  On the House side, panels are meeting on some related issues but it is not clear when a bill will emerge.

As Congress scrambles to figure out how to address this issue, the likelihood that Congress will have to first push out a short-term trust fund rescue, and extension of existing programs, before it can sort out a long-term plan continues to increase.

Water Resources

A deal bridging differences between House and Senate-passed water resources bills (H.R. 3080, S. 601) could come as soon as this weekend for members of the conference committee to sign onto, with possible action in the chambers taking place as soon as next week.

Among the final details are exactly which projects will make it into a final deal — particularly among the 14 in various states of approval by the Army’s civil works branch and the White House Office of Management and Budget, and whether Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) pet project to establish a National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes will be included.

There are still concerns that if more proposed water projects are added and the cost of the bill increases, the conference will lose Republican support.  The last water resources bill, which was enacted over a veto, became law (PL 110-114) in 2007, and since then a long backlog of projects has developed that local and state officials in many parts of the country want to move forward.

Washington Outlook

The full House passed their first two spending bills this week (Mil-Con-VA and Legislative Branch), keeping up the momentum that House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) needs to get all twelve spending bills passed by the August recess.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee approved by voice vote its FY15 spending bill on Wednesday and it will likely to be considered by the full committee next week.  The House Appropriations Transportation-HUD Subcommittee is expected to mark up its FY15 spending bill on Wednesday and the Homeland Security Subcommittee will likely be in the markup queue soon after Transportation-HUD, following the mid-May recess.

On the Senate side, Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said Thursday that she aims to finalize her plans for how to divvy up the $1.014 trillion in discretionary funding set aside for FY15 under the December budget deal (PL 113-67) over the weekend.

Mikulski has said she wants to avoid lame-duck action on appropriations bills, and has plans for the chamber to pass and conference with the House several individual spending bills, as well as to move several “minibuses” before October 1.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has committed four weeks of floor time in June and July for appropriations bills.

Coming up in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed a motion to limit debate on the motion to proceed to a bill (S. 2262) that would promote updates to state building codes to encourage energy savings and provide incentives for energy-efficient manufacturing.  The Senate is expected to vote on the cloture motion, which requires 60 votes for approval, on Tuesday.

After the energy debate, Reid is planning to call up a bill (S. 2261) that would renew for two years a series of expired tax breaks, including credits for research and exploration, mortgage interest and debt relief, and public transit and parking.  The measure, which the Senate Finance Committee approved by voice vote April 3, would extend nearly all 55 tax breaks that expired at the end of 2013.