Monthly Archives: December 2015

Weekly Legislative Report Dec 18, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

Early Wednesday morning the House and Senate Appropriations committees unveiled a $1.15 trillion fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill.  The omnibus spending bill, which tops 2,000 pages, adheres to a bipartisan budget agreement passed by Congress in October that raised previously imposed spending caps.

Leaders late Tuesday also released a separate package renewing expiring tax breaks that was negotiated in tandem with the omnibus.  The House voted on the tax package and the omnibus separately, with self-executing language that would combine them for Senate consideration.

On Friday morning, the House passed the omnibus 316-113 with notable Republican support.  The Senate followed suit shortly thereafter passing the omnibus and the tax extenders package 65-33.  The measure will now be sent to President Obama for his expected signature before the current CR expires on December 22.  Both chambers promptly adjourned for the holiday recess following the votes.

The omnibus would provide $162.1 billion for the programs funded under the Labor-HHS-Education section, $5.4 billion more than FY15 and $5.5 billion less than the President’s budget.

For summaries of each department’s spending bills, see: here.

Education

The Department of Education is taking the first steps toward implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Obama signed into law last week to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and replace key requirements of the outdated No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The department published in Friday’s Federal Register a request for advice and recommendations for Title I regulations under the law.  The department also issued a Dear Colleague letter to states to clarify some initial steps for the transition to the new law.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that department staff will work with states and other grantees to figure out the inevitable policy and implementation decisions that will arise during the transition and will provide “comprehensive guidance and, as necessary, regulations.”

The Department will hold two public hearings in January to collect feedback on transitioning to the new law (for more information see here).

taxes

The tax extenders and omnibus bills passed this week included provisions modifying the Affordable Care Act.  Modifications included delaying the tax on “Cadillac” Health plans for two years, suspending the medical device tax for two years and suspending the health insurance tax for one year.

A section-by-section summary of the tax package is available here.

Washington Outlook

The FY16 omnibus spending bill, or “taxibus” as some people are calling it, effectively wraps up the congressional session for the year, with the House and Senate adjourning for the holiday recess.

The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of January 4-8 when Congress returns from recess. 

 

Weekly Legislative Report Dec 11, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

Today the House by voice vote concurred with the Senate amendments to a shell bill (H.R. 2250) containing the text of a five-day continuing resolution (H J Res 75), just making the midnight deadline to keep the government open.  Congress now has until December 16 to either pass a yearlong spending package or another stopgap bill to avoid a shutdown.

President Obama is expected to sign the measure which will provide more time for congressional leaders to finish work on a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that would cover the remainder of fiscal 2016.

House GOP aides said Friday that the timing for passage of the larger spending deal was still fluid.  The goal is to post the text of the legislation by Monday, but slow negotiations could push that to Tuesday.

Some lawmakers have discussed efforts to tie the spending package to what had been separate negotiations on a permanent extension of expiring tax breaks that could cost $750 billion over 10 years.  Efforts on that front appeared stalled in the face of some heavy Democratic opposition.

Appropriators are waiting on leadership to resolve disagreements over major policy riders ranging from lifting the crude oil export ban to halting the Syrian refugee resettlement program.  Once those issues are settled, appropriators can then iron out the remaining parts of the massive funding package.

Budget

As previously reported, the Senate last week passed an amended budget reconciliation bill that would roll back significant portions of the 2010 health care law and cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood for one year.  Due to the fact that the bill was amended by the Senate, a final vote is required in the House.

The House was expected to take up the reconciliation bill this week, but House Republicans have tentatively decided to delay the vote until next year to give it greater public attention.  According to Labor HHS Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK), “We think it’s too important to use as a placeholder or something just to spend time on. We really want to highlight it when it happens.”  President Obama has promised to veto the measure when it reached his desk. 

Education

President Obama on Thursday signed the bi-partisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, revising and replacing No Child Left Behind.  The law helps states and districts reduce unnecessary standardized tests, gets rid of one-size-fits-all mandates on our schools, ensures that our education system will prepare every child to graduate from high school ready for college and careers, and provides more children access to high-quality state preschool programs.

internet sales tax

Efforts to tax online sales are colliding with Senate action on a wide-ranging customs enforcement measure in the final days of the legislative session.

The bill in question is the conference report for a bill (H.R. 644) that would reauthorize and modernize the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency that also contains language that would make permanent a temporary ban on Internet access taxes.  The language resembles a House-passed Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act proposal (H.R. 235) to create a long-term shield against Internet access taxes (P.L. 114-53).

The problem is, lawmakers in favor of moving online sales tax legislation want to combine the Internet access levies with an online sales tax collection mandate.

Currently there are two online sales tax proposals: The Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 698) by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and the Remote Transactions Parity Act (H.R. 2775) by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).  If the customs bill passes as-is, it would take away their best chance at enacting either the House or Senate online sales tax enforcement proposal.

Both the Chaffetz and Enzi bills would empower states to mandate the collection of sales taxes by out-of-state vendors.  In coming days, Enzi, Chaffetz and their allies continue to face an uphill fight in trying to attach an online sales tax enforcement add-on to a FY16 omnibus spending measure.

In the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has signaled that he wants the online sales tax issue to be resolved in committee, where legislation has been slowed by Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA).  The chairman has been trying to tweak and defuse opposition to his alternative proposal to funnel sales tax revenue to the buyer’s home state, but only up to the rate set by an out-of-state vendor’s home state.  The Goodlatte approach is opposed by state officials and retailers, but supported by NetChoice, an e-commerce alliance that includes eBay and Facebook.

Transportation

President Obama signed the five-year, roughly $305 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill on Thursday that passed the House and Senate last week.  The measure also reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank.

“This is an historic victory for the American people,” Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said in a joint statement.  “It is our constitutional responsibility to fund our nation’s vast transportation and infrastructure network.”

Washington Outlook

Now that Congress has bought itself another five days to work on the FY16 omnibus spending bill, members are hoping to release the bill early next week.

GOP leaders want to adhere to a self-imposed rule to make legislation public for at least three calendar days before voting on it.  Even if the omnibus is released Monday and the House passes it on Wednesday, the Senate may need additional time to consider it.  Unless all Senators cooperate to move the omnibus package quickly, the measure could be bogged down in procedural hurdles for as much as a week.

But with Christmas looming closer by the time Congress returns into session next week, leaders are hoping members will be eager to get the legislation done and leave Washington for the holidays.

Weekly Legislative Report Dec 4, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

On Wednesday top Republican appropriators, backed by GOP leadership, presented their opening offer to Democrats on how to resolve remaining funding and policy issues in the FY16 omnibus spending bill.  Democrats rebuffed the offer saying major changes would need to be made in order to attract their party’s votes, which will be critical since many conservatives tend to vote against major spending agreements.

Earlier in the week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said negotiators had worked out most funding issues on seven of the 12 annual spending bills, but that some of the most politically contentious nondefense bills, including Financial Services, Interior-Environment and Labor HHS, were still unresolved.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said he still hopes to file the text of an omnibus agreement on Monday, allowing time for House and Senate passage by December 11 when the current CR expires.  However, policy disputes on issues such as the treatment of Syrian refugees, environmental rules, financial regulations and campaign finance restrictions, are still threatening to hold up the deal.  

On Tuesday, Senator Labor HHS Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) expressed confidence that a fresh version of the subcommittee measure will be completed as part of an omnibus spending package.  House Labor HHS Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) separately said he is “reasonably optimistic” about the chances for completing a FY16 Labor HHS bill, but said fights over policy riders are still working to be resolved. 

Budget

On Thursday the Senate passed, 52-47, an amended budget reconciliation bill that would roll back significant portions of the 2010 health care law and cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood for one year.

Republicans needed only 51 votes to pass the measure because they moved it through a budget reconciliation process requiring only a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster.  The House will take a final vote on the bill next week.  The White House has issued a veto threat on the measure.

Before advancing the package, senators adopted a substitute amendment from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that dramatically expanded the scope of the repeal of the health overhaul from the version the House passed in October.  The substitute included provisions that would scrap in 2018 the overhaul’s Medicaid expansion, as well as subsidies to help individuals buy coverage through the insurance exchanges.

The Senate also rejected more than a dozen amendments to the package during a nearly seven-hour vote-a-rama, including a proposal that would have stripped out the language cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood and others on gun control following the mass shooting in California on Wednesday.

Education

The House on Wednesday approved the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), entitled the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” replacing the “No Child Left Behind” law.  House members voted 359-64 to approve the conference report on a Senate bill (S. 1177) that became the basis of negotiations between the House and Senate.  All of the opposing votes were by Republicans.

S. 1177 modifies programs and policies to give states, school districts, schools, teachers and parents greater control over all aspects of elementary and secondary education.  It maintains some federal oversight of state programs through the Education Department’s ability to approve state plans for the use of federal funds, but it places strong restrictions on department actions and control.

The conference agreement would authorize education programs through fiscal year 2020.  Total authorizations equal $24.5 billion for FY17, which is $1.2 billion more than the 2015 appropriation, and would increase to $26.1 billion in 2020.  Every Child Succeeds authorizes about $1.3 billion per year for the Impact Aid program, which provides direct funding to school districts affected by the presence of the federal government.

The Senate is expected to vote on the conference report next week and is likely to clear it for the president’s signature.  The White House, which threatened to veto the earlier House version and wanted to see changes to the Senate version, signaled its support for the final package Wednesday.

Energy

The House on Thursday voted 249-174 to pass a wide-ranging energy policy bill (H.R. 8) that is inconsistent with the White House’s climate agenda and would likely be vetoed if it goes to president’s desk.

First introduced by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), the measure would enable the export of oil and liquid natural gas, streamline natural gas pipeline permitting, direct federal agencies to better coordinate on power grid reliability issues and direct those agencies to incorporate smart grid and energy efficient technologies into the overall electric infrastructure.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced a similar energy overhaul legislation package (S. 2012) earlier this year, although with more bipartisan provisions and support.  Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said earlier this week that the bill is unlikely to see floor action this month.

Even though the bill is unlikely to become law and Congress is rushing to complete work on a challenging budget agreement, House leaders chose to conduct the vote at the same time as the United Nations climate conference in Paris, where President Obama has tried to position the United States as a global leader in efforts to forestall climate change induced by carbon emissions.

The White House made a statement that the bill would “undermine already successful initiatives designed to modernize the Nation’s energy infrastructure and increase our energy efficiency.”

Transportation

The House on Thursday voted 359-65 to pass a five-year, roughly $305 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill (H.R. 22).  The Senate voted later on Thursday, passing the bill 83-16 and sending it to the President’s desk.

Final passage came just one day before current authorization (PL 114-87) expired.

Unlike prior reauthorizations, the legislation doesn’t just reauthorize highway and transit programs, but also includes significant rail provisions.  Those include not only the reauthorization of Amtrak but also provisions intended to improve the safety of transporting crude oil on railroads. 

The package also includes the text of 15 banking-related bills, on being the revival of the Ex-Im Bank, which provides about $20 billion annually in loans and other export financing.  The reauthorization comes with several changes for the bank, including a reduction in the value of individual loans it can issue from $140 billion to $135 billion, increased small business lending requirements, a mandate to hire a chief risk officer and an annual audit by the Government Accountability Office on its fraud control measures.

As for highway and transit policy, the bill would boost funding for bus transit, convert the Surface Transportation Program into a block grant program to provide additional flexibility to state and local governments, and create new freight policy and grant programs. 

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee estimates the measure would provide $305 billion for transportation over five years.  But according to the Congressional Budget Office, revenue and interest coming into the Highway Trust Fund from motor fuels taxes over the life of the bill would only amount to $208 billion.

In order to cover the cost of surface transportation programs, Congress will draw $70 billion from the General Fund for the measure and deposit it in the Highway Trust Fund, the source of reimbursement for states for highway and transit projects.  The bill would also transfer $300 million over three years to the Highway Trust Fund from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund. 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that President Barack Obama would sign the bill.

Washington Outlook

Congress is heading home for the weekend, but the clock is still ticking down to the deadline for an omnibus spending agreement.  Lawmakers are looking ahead to a busy week, when the House is expected to vote on a bill to tighten the visa waiver program and, possibly, a $1.1 trillion catchall omnibus spending measure before spending authority (PL 114-53) expires on December 11.

With negotiations ongoing, signs are growing that congressional leaders may look to advance another short-term continuing resolution next week in order to give negotiators more time to strike a deal on an omnibus spending bill.  Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) indicated Monday that he is open to moving a week-long CR should appropriators fail to finalize an omnibus by the 11th.  Hours later the White House indicated it would not block such a short-term CR while lawmakers finalize the appropriations deal, however, they also said the President would not sign a long-term CR.