Monthly Archives: July 2015

Weekly Legislative Report July 30, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Transportation

The House voted 385-34 on Wednesday, July 29 to approve an $8 billion short term highway bill that would extend federal transportation funding until October 29, 2015.  After sending the bill (H.R. 3236) to the Senate, the House adjourned for the August recess.  Funding for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) expires July 31.

The Senate today voted 65-34 for final passage of a six-year highway and transit bill.  Passage of the legislative vehicle (H.R. 22) for the long-term package gives the Senate a bill it can take to conference with the House after the August recess.  The Senate is expected to vote later this afternoon on H.R. 3236 to authorize programs until late October buying time for House and Senate to agree on a long-term measure.

H.R. 22 would move roughly $45 billion from the General Fund to the HTF and uses about $9 billion in offsets related to the sale of part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  The Senate also agreed by voice vote Wednesday to include two amendments from Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  The Inhofe amendment would provide more funding for transit and would give the Energy secretary flexibility to adjust sales based on market prices, a move designed to get as much revenue from as few oil sales as possible.

McConnell’s proposal was a second-degree amendment to his original six-year measure.  The amendment includes the following:

·       Technical changes to language related to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises provisions and adjustment to inflation of the threshold for being a DBE.

·       Striking redistribution language from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program (TIFIA).

·       Increasing authorization levels for the Tribal Transportation Program by $5 million per year and decreasing authorizations for the Federal Lands Access Program by the same amount.

·       Adding language from an amendment from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) that would direct the Transportation Secretary to establish design standards for transportation projects that safely accommodate motorized and non-motorized users.  The amendment was agreed at the July 15 Commerce, Science and Transportation markup of the safety portion of the bill.

·       Increasing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration civil penalties to $21,000 and the civil penalty cap to $105 million. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said Tuesday this was a compromise to get more Democrats on board with the safety title.

·       Clarifying the definition of 24/7 sobriety, tire pressure rulemaking provisions, the review time period for an annual safety report.

·       Striking a Freedom of Information Act exemption for modification reporting under the title developed by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

·       Amending a Freedom of Information Act exemption for cameras on passenger trains.

·       The Eno Center described the changes as technical and substantive.

The Senate’s six-year bill would also reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, an export finance agency whose charter expired at the end of June.  Many conservative Republicans oppose renewing the bank’s charter.  They were unable to block the Ex-Im Bank amendment on the Senate bill, but House Republicans could have a better chance of keeping it off any long-term bill that chamber passes.

Once the short term measure passes the Senate, the chambers will punt the highway bill debate until the fall.

Veterans Affairs

The House on Wednesday voted 256-170 to pass legislation that would make it easier for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire employees throughout the department.  The bill (H.R. 1994) would permit the secretary to dismiss or demote any employee based on misconduct or poor performance.

The legislation comes as a result of frustration from lawmakers that employees responsible for the turmoil at the VA — such as the department’s wait times scandal last year and recent hospital construction woes — have not been held responsible for misconduct and mismanagement. 

The bill is sponsored by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) and would provide for a 45-day expedited appeals process with the Merit Systems Protection Board.  The legislation also would permit the VA to recoup part of the pensions of employees who are convicted of a felony related to their service at the VA.

The measure would prohibit the secretary from moving against employees with active cases with the Office of Special Counsel, the agency tasked with resolving whistle-blower complaints, a provision aimed at protecting employees who disclose mismanagement, misconduct or illegal activity.

Washington Outlook

The House has adjourned for the August recess and will return September 8.  The Senate will be in next week to wrap up work before recessing for the month.

Weekly Legislative Report July 17, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

The House Appropriations Committee passed their twelfth and final FY16 bill this week, but it is likely that we will not see any additional FY16 spending bills on the House floor given the still-unresolved Confederate flag debate that arose during consideration of the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment spending bill last week.

In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed 28-2 the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for FY16. The Financial Services Appropriations bill is the only one remaining on the Senate side and it will likely be considered in both subcommittee and full committee next week. 

Defense

A House-Senate conference writing the final FY16 defense authorization bill is currently underway.  Both measures (H.R. 1735, S. 1376) aim to streamline military procurements and get more bang for the buck.

Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees met privately Thursday, as they contended publicly that progress is being made toward a final FY16 defense policy bill.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and his Senate counterpart John McCain (R-AZ) are aiming to finish their compromise defense authorization bill as early as next week with the aim of final passage before August recess.

Education

The Senate on Thursday, July 16 voted 81-17 to pass the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), entitled the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (S. 1177).

The Senate bill would keep federal tests currently required under the law, but make states responsible for creating accountability systems and determining the weight of test results in assessing school performance.  It would also prohibit the Education Department from mandating certain educational standards, like Common Core.

On the House side, members voted 218-213 on Wednesday, July 8 to pass the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), the rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law (P.L. 107-110) which expired in 2007. 

Both the House and Senate bills limit the federal role in public schools by giving states and local school districts more control over assessing the performance of schools, teachers and students, but the Senate bill has a more bi-partisan approach and is supported by the Administration.

Congress will now move to conference in the hopes of ironing out the differences in the House and Senate bills, and will hopefully result in a final version that the White House is willing to sign.

Transportation

The House voted 312-119 on Wednesday to approve an $8 billion bill (H.R. 3038) authored by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) to extend federal transportation funding until December 18, 2015.

Although most lawmakers are generally against a temporary patch of Highway funding, the stopgap measure will buy time to negotiate a long-term highway bill and/or a tax reform package to pay for it.

Finance leaders in the House and Senate have been unable to come up with a long-term funding solution for surface transportation programs and the Highway Trust Fund that reimburses states for projects has faced repeated shortfalls since 2008 because spending authorized by Congress has outpaced revenue going into the fund.  The fund is fed primarily by motor fuels taxes that have not been increased since 1993.  Republicans are generally opposed to a gas tax increase, as are some Democrats.

The measure now goes to the Senate, which is expected to add an extension of the Export-Import Bank’s charter into the bill or drop their own bill, then send the package back to the House.  This complicates matters because House conservatives are against an Ex-Im extension.

The deadline to extend highway funding is July 31.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, members will return on Tuesday to begin the final push of its summer term.   A July deadline for the development of a health care overhaul replacement package — crafted through the budgetary reconciliation process — has been pushed back to coincide with other year-end topics.

Decisions on the FY16 spending bills, which pivot on a September 30 fiscal year deadline, also face extensions toward the end of the year.

The Senate will continue to work on a highway bill before funding runs out at the end of the month.

Weekly Legislative Report July 10, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees continued their consideration of FY16 spending bills this week.  The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday passed their FY16 State, Foreign Operations bill and the House Appropriations Committee cleared their FY16 Agriculture Appropriations bill on Wednesday.

After the House Appropriations Committee considers the FY16 Homeland Security Appropriations bill next week, the Committee will have cleared all twelve of the annual spending bills.

It is unclear at this point how many of the House bills will be considered on the House floor, especially after the Interior-Environment spending bill was pulled from the floor yesterday after it was clear that it could not pass without the inclusion of a provision that would have allowed Confederate flag imagery to be displayed on cemeteries on federal land in some circumstances.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has cleared ten of the twelve annual appropriations bills and is likely to consider their remaining FY16 bills, Agriculture and Financial Services, next week.

On June 18 Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made an attempt to bring the first FY16 appropriations bill to the Senate floor and Senate Democrats blocked the chamber from proceeding to debate on the FY16 Defense Appropriations bill.  McConnell has said that he plans to bring up FY16 spending bills for test votes on the Senate floor “periodically” in the weeks ahead and Democrats have vowed to vote against the motion to proceed on any appropriations measures that adhere to the current spending caps.

Defense

Members of House and Senate Armed Services panels met this week at the subcommittee level to begin reconciling differences in their FY16 defense authorization bills, multiple lawmakers say, marking a low-key start to the formal negotiations.

A conference committee has not formally begun its work — the Senate has not yet appointed conferees, though the House has.  Both Committee Chairs Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his House counterpart, Mac Thornberry (R-TX) have said they hope to hammer out a final defense policy bill (H.R. 1735) before lawmakers head back home for the August recess.

Education

The House on Wednesday voted 218-213 vote to pass the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), the rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law (P.L. 107-110).  Twenty-seven Republicans opposed passage of the bill along with all Democrats.

The measure would largely remove the federal government from decisions regarding school accountability, interventions in failing schools, and teacher evaluation and qualification.  It also would eliminate 65 federal education programs, convert to block grants large portions of federal K-12 funding to states and let Title I money for low-income students follow them if they transfer among public and charter schools.  For more information on the bill including full bill text, fact sheets and a summary see: here

The White House strongly opposes H.R. 5, saying it would shift resources away from schools, and does not require states to take responsibility for lagging schools and ignores calls for high-quality preschool.

The House adopted five amendments which are as follows:

·       Amendment No. 1 by Reps. Rokita (R-IN), Grothman (R-WI) – Sets the authorization from fiscal year 2016 through 2019. – adopted by voice.

·       Amendment No. 3 by Rep. Salmon (R-AZ) – Allows parents to opt their student out of the testing required under this bill and exempts schools from including students that have opted out in the schools’ participation requirements. – Adopted 251 – 178

·       Amendment No. 30 by Rep. Zeldin (R-NY) – Clarifies that states may withdraw from the Common Core State Standards or any other state standards without any penalty from the Secretary of Education. – Adopted 373 – 57

·       Amendment No. 31 by Rep. Hurd (R-TX) – Expresses the sense of Congress that students’ personally identifiable information should be kept private and secure. – Adopted 424 – 2

On the Senate side, lawmakers worked through their version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), entitled the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (S. 1177).  The Senate bill also limits the federal role in public schools by giving states and local school districts more control over assessing the performance of schools, teachers and students, but is more bi-partisan than the House bill and has the support of the White House

As Senators considered amendments to the bill, Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) appealed to his colleagues to work together and not weigh it down with changes that would jeopardize Democratic support.

The Senate is scheduled to continue debating the bill next week, and Alexander made a statement yesterday saying, “House passage of this bill is the first step, Senate passage next week will be the next step, then we can go to conference, get a bill to the president’s desk, fix the law and improve the future for 50 million children in 100,000 public schools.”

Healthcare

Today, the House approved the 21st Century Cures Act (HR 6) by a vote of 344 – 77.  The bill would designate $9.3 billion in mandatory spending for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over 5 years while modifying elements of the FDA’s drug and medical device review process.

Online Sales Tax

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) spoke out last week regarding competing online sales tax proposals in the House.  McCarthy said he has no plans for bypassing Judiciary to resolve differences between Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) draft Online Sales Simplification Act proposal and the bipartisan Remote Transactions Parity Act (H.R. 2775) that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is pushing with 25 co-sponsors.  Judiciary has sole jurisdiction over online taxes in the House and would have to sign off on a plan, unless leaders opt to take it directly to the floor.

A broad alliance of retailers, other businesses and state and local government officials are backing the Chaffetz bill, which is similar to the Senate’s Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 698) authored by Michael Enzi (R-WY) that has 22 co-sponsors.

Both of those bills would allow states to enforce traditional sales taxes based on the destination, or buyer’s location, for any interstate online transaction.  Despite the support for the Chaffetz bill, the only way it will be taken up is if it moves to the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction.

Transportation

The current Highway Bill extension that passed in late May is set to expire at the end of the month, and despite support for a long-term measure, there remains the problem of a funding mechanism to pay for it.

Senate Republicans want to attach a two year highway funding extension to a tax break extension, but leaders of the Finance Committee will not commit to a timeframe for marking up a tax extenders package.

Today, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) predicted that longer-term measures under discussion in the Senate were unlikely to pass the House therefore he is drafting an $8 billion highway funding patch through the end of the year.

Ryan said that that reauthorizing surface transportation funding through December will give lawmakers time to assemble a six-year highway funding measure coupled with an international tax overhaul and an extension of temporary tax provisions.  Ryan commented that the short-term measure would be paid for with “fairly innocuous, kind of boring stuff that shouldn’t be a surprise,” and added the bill will be posted soon.

Washington Outlook

As we look ahead for what is in store the remainder of the first session of the 114th Congress, the summer and fall in Washington, D.C. will be extremely busy with efforts to negotiate a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government, identify funds for a short-term highway construction authorization extension, negotiate a possible Ryan-Murray budget agreement to bypass the Budget Control Act, discussion and negotiation on funding levels for an omnibus appropriations bill for FY16, and efforts to secure an extension of highway project construction authority that is directly linked to international tax reform.