Monthly Archives: January 2016

6Weekly Legislative Report Jan 21, 2016

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Budget

According to a new forecast by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), this year’s budget deficit will be almost a third bigger than was projected just five months ago.

For the first time since 2009, the deficit will increase relative to the size of the economy, amounting to 2.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, according to CBO’s annual Budget and Economic Outlook, a summary of which was released Tuesday.  The deficit for FY16 will reach $544 billion, which is $130 billion more than was projected in August.

But unlike in 2009, when a recession led to a loss of revenue and growing government expenses, the new uptick in debt is “largely attributable” to tax and spending decisions made by Congress since August.  Foremost among them was the omnibus package last month that made permanent about a dozen popular tax breaks.  That package was estimated to add about $680 billion to cumulative deficits over the next decade. 

GOP members argue that the tax cuts effectively pay for themselves because they spur economic growth, which in turn can generate more revenue.  Democrats counter that argument, pointing to massive tax cuts adopted under Republican administrations that coincided with soaring deficits.

The CBO’s full report is scheduled to be released on January 25.

Energy/Environment

The Senate on Thursday voted 52-40 on a motion to invoke cloture and limit debate to override the president’s veto of a joint resolution intended to nullify the contentious Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule; falling short of the required 60 votes.

President Barack Obama vetoed the joint resolution of disapproval (SJ Res 22) on Tuesday, six days after the House voted on final passage. 

WOTUS is the latest example of the EPA overreaching.  The agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the final regulation, which took effect in August, to clarify areas of jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (PL 95-217) they say have been left unclear by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.  The rulings issued different tests for determining which bodies of water are subject to regulation under the anti-pollution law.

The regulation, which became final in August 2015, is under a nationwide court-ordered stay while judges review legal challenges. 

Industries ranging from agriculture to mining fought the WOTUS rule and gained the support of House Republicans and some moderate Democrats for legislation (H.R. 1732) that would have required the EPA and the Corps of Engineers to revoke the regulation and propose a new rule after following specific steps outlined in the bill.  The House passed the bill in May on a 261-155 vote with 24 Democrats voting for it.

In November, Senate Republicans approved the resolution of disapproval with a 53-44 vote.

Foreign Policy

Today, Senate Democrats blocked a cloture motion, 55-43, to begin debate on a House-passed bill (H.R. 4038) that would bring to an end virtually all resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the country.  Sixty votes were required for cloture. 

Republicans argued that the legislation, which cleared the House in November with an overwhelming majority, is needed after recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists.  But Democrats said the bill only feeds the fear and hatred stirred up by GOP presidential candidates.

The vote came after Democrats were unable to work out an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that would allow them to get votes on amendments such as gun access and religious litmus tests.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the House is canceling its scheduled votes on Monday in anticipation of the blizzard expected to hit the Washington region this weekend.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) office announced today that the chamber’s first votes of the week will instead take place Tuesday evening as lawmakers fly back to Washington.

The Senate has also announced it will push its first votes back until Tuesday afternoon.

The Office of Personnel Management has not yet issued a decision on whether to close the federal government on Friday, the day heavy snow is expected to start falling.

The House will have an even shorter workweek as a result of canceling Monday’s votes. Lawmakers were already only scheduled to be in session through Wednesday to accommodate a Democratic Party retreat in Baltimore.

Weekly Legislative Report Jan 15, 2016

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations & Budget

House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) said Wednesday he plans to draft legislation this year that would rewrite the budget law (PL 93-344) that has controlled how Congress funds the government since 1974.  Although the effort wouldn’t come in time for the budget request that President Barack Obama will submit to Congress next month, Price said he hopes to get his legislation passed and signed by a new GOP president next year.

Congress has high hopes of passing all of the annual appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year, something that hasn’t been done in two decades.  With funding for the current fiscal year behind them with passage of the omnibus, Republican leaders have pledged to restore the regular budget process by clearing the 12 annual appropriations bills to fund the government by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he is prepared to give enough floor time for appropriations bills as necessary to achieve this goal.  House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) voiced similar hopes saying he wants to begin considering spending bills on the House floor by mid-March.  In addition, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he would not block spending bills from coming up for debate in the Senate this year, as happened last year.

The task could be made easier this year because of the two-year bipartisan budget agreement passed in October that established overall spending levels for defense and domestic programs for fiscal 2017 allowing lawmakers to begin their work with the top-line spending limits already settled.

Obstacles still remain, however, given that this is an election year and policy riders are expected to remain an issue.  Another obstacle is the shortened election year legislative calendar – Congress is planning on taking off seven weeks in July and August around the national party conventions and an additional five weeks in October for the fall campaign.

Foreign Policy

The House on Tuesday voted 418-2 to pass legislation that would impose tougher sanctions on North Korea by discouraging foreign banks from doing business with the country.

The measure would authorize sanctions on foreign financial institutions and governments that assist North Korea in evading restrictions imposed upon it by U.N. Security Council rules.  Because of China’s status as Pyongyang’s largest trading partner, the legislation is expected to have a disproportionate impact on Chinese businesses.  The measure would also make mandatory some North Korea sanctions authorities that are currently discretionary.

The House on Wednesday passed legislation aimed at killing the Iran nuclear deal but then quickly vacated the vote after nearly 140 members missed it.  The chamber is expected to vote again on the legislation (H.R. 3662) after lawmakers return from recess.  H.R. 3662 would prohibit the President from automatically lifting sanctions as promised in the recent negotiations regarding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon ambitions.

Taxes

Last weekend a task force for an influential state lawmaker group met to discuss their frustration at the lack of Congressional action on the internet sales tax issue.  The group decided on a strategy where they would write laws allowing states to collect taxes from Internet sales in order to test a 1992 Supreme Court decision that such taxes can be collected only from companies with a “physical presence” – and see if that motivates Congress to act.

Next week the Senate is expected to take up a customs enforcement bill (H.R. 644) with a provision that would deal with a separate Internet tax issue which would permanently ban states from instituting a tax on Internet access beginning in 2020.  The ban was first enacted in 1998 (PL 105-277) and has been renewed five times since.  Many lawmakers saw this bi-partisan bill as the perfect vehicle in which to attach an internet sales tax proposal.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) has indicated that he will seek to strip out the tax provision using a point of order.  Right now there are two internet sales tax proposals on the table: the Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 698) introduced by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and the Remote Transactions Parity Act (H.R. 2775) by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).  The House bill has yet to receive a hearing.

If Durbin is successful in removing the tax provision from the customs bill, he hopes to move forward with pairing the Internet tax ban and Marketplace Fairness Act together.

Washington Outlook

This week in Washington, Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday; the GOP Presidential debate on Thursday; and King Abdullah of Jordan’s state visit dominated the agenda.

For the full transcript of President Obama’s speech, see here.

Republicans from both chambers left Wednesday for Baltimore to attend the GOP retreat where they will discuss legislative issues for the coming year.  The House will be in recess all next week and will return January 25, the Senate will return to session on Tuesday, January 19.

Weekly Legislative Report Jan 8, 2016

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Budget

The White House will release its Fiscal Year 2017 budget request on February 9, narrowly missing the statutory deadline for sending the proposal to Congress.

Under current budget law, the White House is supposed to submit its request to Congress by the first Monday in February, which this year falls on February 1, the same day as the Iowa caucuses.

It is expected to adhere to the discretionary spending limits in bipartisan budget deal (PL 114-74).  Under that blueprint, caps on defense and nondefense programs largely remain frozen between current FY16 levels and FY17.  Base defense spending moves up roughly $3 billion, to $551.07 billion, while nondefense programs remain effectively flat at $518.53 billion.  Overseas Contingency Operations funding is slated to continue at the current level of $73.69 billion.

Healthcare

Today President Obama vetoed legislation that would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aka Obama Care, the first such measure to reach his desk since it became law in 2010.

The House on Wednesday voted 240-181 to pass a package (H.R. 3762) that would restrict federal funding for Planned Parenthood for one year as well as repeal large portions of ACA.

Republicans were able to skirt a Democratic filibuster in the Senate by using a budget process called reconciliation, which allows legislation to pass the upper chamber with a simple majority.  It cleared the Senate in December.

Even though Obama long threatened to veto the measure, Republicans touted the vote as an important step toward reversing the Affordable Care Act if the party wins the White House in November.

Washington Outlook

This week the House of Representatives returned from recess to begin the second session of the 114th Congress; the Senate returns next week.

Continued Republican opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and North Korea’s fourth nuclear test have pushed two sanctions bills to the top of the queue for floor votes.

The North Korea sanctions bill (H.R. 757) seeks to curtail North Korea’s access to the international financial system.  It is expected to enjoy broad bipartisan support when it is voted on next week.  The legislation was advanced out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last February.

A separate measure (H.R. 3662) that would deny sanctions relief under the Iran nuclear deal to any bank that previously facilitated support of terrorism or the country’s ballistic missile program is expected to pass the House in a largely party line vote.

President Obama will deliver his final State of the Union Address on Tuesday, January 12th.  Obama is also likely to strongly defend his recent wave of regulations and executive actions such as his clean power plan, fiduciary duty, net neutrality, joint employer, and overtime regulations, foreign policy with Cuba and Iran, Paris climate change agreement, and the Trans Pacific Partnership. 

There remain two very controversial issues – closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and gun control executive actions – that Obama is expected to push for, albeit with strong GOP opposition.  Criminal justice reform is one of the few areas where we could see the Administration and Congress finding common ground this year.