Monthly Archives: March 2017

Weekly Legislative Report Mar 24, 2017

source: Capital Decisions Newsletter
J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations/Budget

The FY18 budget process already promises to run behind schedule, which may lead to another stopgap spending measure extending current funding levels to avoid a government shutdown.

President Trump proposed an outline of discretionary spending last week, with the full budget not coming until May.

The House Budget Committee is reportedly unlikely to adopt a FY18 budget resolution before the Easter recess, meaning the House is unlikely to produce a budget by the April 15 deadline set in statute.  Not making that deadline might prevent the House from taking up any spending bills until May.

Education

The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), held a hearing Tuesday to discuss reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) with a focus on student aid.

Witnesses highlighted the importance of simplifying and improving federal student aid to better accommodate adult students, increase completion time and reduce student debt.  Recommendations for streamlining student aid included: required loan counseling, restructuring of loan disbursement methods, and elimination of subsided loans.  A new bill introduced in committee this week, the Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 1635), aims to improve the timing, frequency, and content of financial aid counseling.

Energy/Environment

Keystone Pipeline

Calgary-based TransCanada Corporation announced on Friday that it received a Presidential permit from the State Department, providing a green light to move forward with construction on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

TransCanada subsequently dropped a $15 billion lawsuit it had brought against the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement, filed after the Obama administration’s November 2015 rejection of its previous application.

The Obama administration’s rejection of the pipeline came after a campaign by TransCanada and its allies in Congress to build the $8 billion conduit from Alberta’s oil sands to Nebraska, connecting from there to existing pipelines to Gulf Coast refineries.  The project was met with years of protests from environmental groups, which sustained pressure on the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress.

Trump said that Keystone is the first of many energy projects his administration will be green-lighting.  His administration has already cleared the way for another controversial project, the Dakota Access Pipeline to move forward after the Obama administration had halted its construction to explore alternative routes and address concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

Nuclear Energy

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted, 18-3, on Wednesday to advance the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S. 512), winning bipartisan support despite the panel’s differences on energy and environment issues.

Senate EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced the bill, which aims to ease licensing and funding for new reactor development and would give U.S. firms working on advanced reactor designs a clear and relatively low-cost path to licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The bill would direct the NRC to modernize the regulatory pathway for license applicants and create a cost-sharing grant program to help pay fees for pre-application and application review.  The legislation also calls for an excess uranium inventory management plan and would limit how much uranium the U.S. Department of Energy can transfer or sell annually as well as boost the development of small modular reactors, or SMRs.

The expansion of nuclear power, which generates about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, has been slowed by high startup costs, a protracted licensing process and competition from cheap natural gas and renewables.  Supporters of the bill argue that a clear regulatory process would encourage investment in the technology and create skilled jobs.

Timing for full Senate consideration of the bill remains uncertain since Senators have been preoccupied with cabinet nominations.

Healthcare

House leaders canceled a vote Thursday on the American Health Care Act (H.R. 1628), the Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare.  The decision represents a major setback to President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) first substantial legislative effort under a GOP-controlled Congress.

The vote was delayed due to the current divide between House GOP members and calls into question whether Republicans will be able to fulfill their seven-year promise to repeal the ACA (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

The bill was updated from its original version to try and meet an ambitious set of policy demands from the conservative House Freedom Caucus.  Trump, Ryan, and other House leaders spent Thursday unsuccessfully scrambling to negotiate a deal to persuade moderate lawmakers to accept AHCA. 

The new Congressional Budget Office estimates show how several key policy tweaks affected the impact of the package and overall, the package would reduce federal deficits by $150 billion by 2026, roughly $186 billion less than the original language.

The House is now scheduled to vote on the bill later today, and Speaker Ryan is reportedly going to the White House to update the president on the prospects for the bill.  Currently, the likelihood of the bill passing seems doubtful.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, if and when GOP health care legislation passes the House, it could face potential parliamentary trouble in the Senate.

Senate Democrats are already scouring the legislation for possible violations of a procedural rule that could only be overridden with 60 votes — a threshold Republicans lack.  Any provision of the health care plan that doesn’t directly relate to spending or revenue could violate the Byrd rule, which forbids extraneous provisions from any bill that is being considered on a fast track.

Whether any of the legislation in fact violates the Byrd rule won’t be clear until the measure comes before the Senate for debate.  Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) said provisions that give states the option to impose a work requirement on Medicaid recipients and bar the use of tax credits for insurance policies that cover abortion may violate the Byrd rule.  And a provision that was under discussion Thursday by House leaders to lift mandates that insurance policies cover certain services would also appear to be open to a Byrd rule challenge if it becomes part of the legislation.

In addition, Senate Republican aides said the Senate would be unlikely to take up any reconciliation bill passed by the House to repeal the health care law until May because of the need to wait for Congressional Budget Office estimates, plans to bring the nomination of Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch to the floor before the Easter break and the need to extend a FY17 continuing resolution that expires April 28.

Weekly Legislative Report Mar 10, 2017

source: Capital Decisions Newsletter
J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations/Budget

Fiscal Year 2017 Appropriations

On Thursday, the House passed a conferenced version of the FY17 Defense Appropriations bill, which will now be sent to the Senate.  Given the shrinking legislative calendar and a host of items on Republicans’ agenda, such as repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act, there is little time or appetite for extended floor work on individual appropriations bills or even smaller packages, making an omnibus appropriations package comprising the 10 other unfinished FY17 spending measures more likely.

While the House passed the Defense measure on Thursday, appropriators in each chamber are still negotiating final versions of the remaining 10 FY17 spending bills.  Top Republican and Democratic senators have suggested the Defense spending bill will serve as a vehicle for a final FY17 appropriations package, which could also include supplemental funding requested by Trump to build up the military and begin construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  Such a package, if passed by the Senate, would then have to be sent back to the House for final passage and then to the White House for Trump’s signature.

Failure to complete an omnibus package could result in another stopgap measure that simply extends current funding levels through September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Fiscal Year 2018

An outline of Trump’s budget is due to Congress next week and it will call for $54 billion in cuts to nondefense discretionary programs to make way for an equivalent increase in defense spending above the level previously set but the Budget Control Act.  Lawmakers from both parties, however, are beginning to make clear they do not intend to follow Trump’s guidance when they get around to writing their FY18 budget resolution that will set topline spending levels for FY18 spending bills.

House Labor HHS Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole said he would oppose making more cuts in domestic discretionary programs to accommodate a defense increase saying, “We thought it was wrong when Democrats said for every increased dollar on defense, you had to increase domestic. It’s just as wrong to say for every increase on defense you have to cut domestic. I think the new defense money is needed. I’m for it. But, I think, it ought to be offset on the entitlement side of the ledger.”  President Donald Trump, however, has vowed not to touch Social Security or Medicare.

Cole also appeared ready to protect spending for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Look, CDC is as important to defending the average American as the Department of Defense. You are a lot more likely to die in a pandemic than you are in a terrorist attack,” Cole said, when asked about how the GOP’s repeal and replace bill removal of a public health prevention fund would affect spending on the CDC in the upcoming fiscal year. “Having a robustly funded CDC, I think, is very much in the national interest.”

House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY) both said this week that they won’t release the FY18 budget resolution text until after the repeal and replace legislation is passed. An agreed-to fiscal 2018 budget resolution would wipe out the FY17 budget resolution’s reconciliation instructions, which are being used to repeal and replace the health care law.

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said he has not begun to talk with Republican colleagues about how the topline spending number set by the budget resolution would affect the 12 appropriations bills that are supposed to fund the federal government during FY18.

Earmark Ban

This week, six Republican senators sent a letter to President Trump asking him to oppose any congressional effort to restore earmarks in spending bills.  The earmark debate surfaced late last year, when some House Republicans pushed to restore earmarks in limited fashion as part of a new rules package for the House.  Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) headed off a vote on the issue, saying the matter would be debated and addressed early this year.

Republican senators opposed to earmarks are now seeking Trump’s help to head off their revival saying, “Earmarks represent the pay-to-play culture you have pledged to end,” the senators wrote.  The letter was signed by John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ben Sasse (R-NE).

Education

K-12

The Senate on Thursday passed the joint resolution to repeal the Obama accountability regulations issued under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by a vote of 50-49-1.  Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) was the lone Republican to vote against the measure.  Also, the joint resolution to repeal the teacher preparation regulation passed by a vote of 59-40-1.  Both measures head to the President’s desk for signature.

The rule lays out how states should keep schools accountable and rate them to make sure they provide high-quality education.  Republicans argued that the federal rule is unnecessary because the education law enacted in 2015 (PL 114-95) has enough provisions for states to do the evaluations on their own.  The state accountability regulations clarify how the K-12 education law will be implemented and include standards on how states rate schools and addresses parents who remove their children from testing.  The Obama administration finalized the rule in November.

 Higher Ed

Democrats on the Senate HELP Committee are requesting full hearings on Education Department appointees they’ll have to vote to confirm, including Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, General Counsel, and Assistant Secretaries.  The Democrat’s took a jab at Secretary DeVos, saying her inexperience requires the insurance that subcabinet-level appointees have the experience necessary to execute federal policy.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) also sent a letter to Secretary DeVos recommending that she conduct a comprehensive audit of all student loan-related data maintained by the Department of Education.

On the House side, the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development will hold a hearing next Wednesday, March 15th, entitled, “Improving Federal Student Aid to Better Meet the Needs of Students.”  The hearing will look at student aid policies as it works to reauthorize the higher Education Act this year.

Energy/Environment

Emissions Standards

On March 3, The New York Times reported that the President Donald Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao would announce a rollback of vehicle pollution regulations this week, as well as begin steps to revoke a waiver that allows California to enforce tougher standards than the EPA’s.

Senate Democrats and environmental groups spoke out this week against the proposed action, saying that repealing Obama administration vehicle emissions standards would increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil, raise gas prices and revert efforts to combat global warming.  The EPA has not commented on whether they will take action on vehicle emissions standards.

The 2012 standards require the auto industry to deliver an average 54.5 miles per gallon for vehicles of model years 2022-2025.  As part of the rulemaking, the EPA agreed to conduct a midterm review of the standards, which led the agency to conclude the program was working as planned.  In addition to reducing oil consumption, increased fuel efficiency would also cut tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Trump administration has not yet acted on these regulations, however the program is expected to be rescinded or revised in the near future.

Nuclear Licensing

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced a bill (S. 512) this week to modernize the regulation of nuclear energy that aims to give U.S. firms working on reactor designs a clear and relatively low-cost path to licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  There is support among Democrats and Republicans for legislation to increase development of smaller, relatively cheap nuclear reactors to help the carbon-free energy source make a comeback.

According to the Department of Energy, these small modular reactors (SMRs) can be deployed in more places and at lower cost that their full-size predecessors, which funds research to develop the new devices.  Current designs would produce up to 300 megawatts of power, compared to the 1,000-plus megawatt capacity of nuclear plants now on the grid.

The EPW Committee held a hearing on the bill on Wednesday, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), an outspoken advocate on the dangers of climate change.  At the hearing, industry advocates told panelists that the legislation is needed if the U.S. wants to maintain its nuclear advantage for new technology that they argue could shape the future of energy use.  However, some environmental groups remain concerned over acceptance nuclear, even in a smaller package, to solve climate problems- saying that just because a reactor is smaller does not mean it poses less risk of an accident.

Barrasso’s bill would direct the NRC to establish a streamlined regulatory pathway for license applicants and create a cost-sharing grant program to help pay fees for pre-application and application review.  It also calls for an excess uranium inventory management plan and would limit how much uranium the Energy Department can transfer or sell annually.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a similar bill last Congress and also cosponsored S. 512.  In the House, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) along with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) introduced a bill last month (H.R. 1320) that would alter the NRC fee system, and the House has already passed a bill (H.R. 590) by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) that would establish regulatory pathways for advanced nuclear licenses.

Healthcare

Monday night House Republicans released their long-awaited repeal and replace bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA).  Bill text and summary materials for the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s portion of the bill are available here.  Materials from the Ways and Means Committee are available here.

The Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees both held marathon markups of the bill this week.  At both markups and even on the House floor Democrats employed stalling tactics; on Wednesday they moved twice to adjourn the House as an act of protest against the GOP decision to hold the markups without waiting for a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score with cost and coverage numbers. Eventually Republicans agreed to adjourn to allow the markups to proceed.

In terms of next steps, the highly anticipated CBO score is expected to be available on Monday.  The House Budget Committee is expected to consider the legislation on Wednesday.

Following the Budget Committee’s markup, the bill will head to the Rules Committee before being considered on the House floor in the next week or two.  While it is not clear at this time if the House has the votes to pass the bill, Speaker Ryan (R-WI) has “guaranteed” they will get the 218 votes needed to pass the House.  Some conservatives have called the bill “Obamacare Lite” and, to get to 218, leadership will have to overcome their objections as no Democrats are expected to vote for the bill.

Assuming House passage, the bill will be sent to the Senate for consideration.  Consideration in the Senate may be trickier with both moderate and conservative Republicans expressing concerns with the legislation.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has said he will bring the bill immediately to the Senate floor, skipping the Committee process.

Washington Outlook

An outline of Trump’s FY18 budget is expected next week, and the administration has already announced it plans to cut domestic spending by $54 billion in order to shift those funds towards the military.

Next week in Congress, the CBO plans to release is score of the House Obama Care replacement plan, the American Health Care Act (AHCA).

In the Senate, members will resume consideration of the nomination of Seema Verma to be Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Weekly Legislative Report Mar 3, 2017

source: Capital Decisions Newsletter
J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations/Budget

President Donald Trump will send his budget outline, or “skinny budget” to Congress on March 16.  The larger budget request will be sent to Congress in early May.

That budget will propose a 10 percent increase in defense spending ($54 billion), taking defense up to $603 billion in FY18.  Nondefense accounts would be cut by a corresponding $54 billion, in part by cuts in foreign aid.

The White House was set to deliver draft topline budget numbers to departments and agencies at noon Monday in a process called “passback.”  During passback, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials notify departments and agencies of their approved budgetary levels, which may differ from the agencies’ budget requests.  The passback decisions also can include policy changes, and agencies can appeal the decisions to the OMB.

The plan would break the current barrier between defense and nondefense as specified in the 2011 deficit reduction law (PL 112-25), which lowered the caps on defense and nondefense spending after a special congressional committee was unable to agree on $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reduction.  Under that law, FY18 defense spending is limited to $549 billion and nondefense spending to $515.4 billion.  Raising defense would restore military spending to the earlier, pre-sequester limit in the 2011 law, but by cutting nondefense by the same amount, the budget would shrink domestic spending even below current levels.

Cabinet Nominations

To date, 18 of President Trump’s cabinet nominee have received approval, leaving four (Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, U.S. Trade Representative, and Director of National Intelligence) still awaiting a vote.  The four below agency heads were confirmed by the full Senate this week.

Department of Commerce

The Senate on Monday confirmed billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce by a vote of 72-27.  Ross will lead trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

Department of Energy

The Senate on Thursday voted 62-37 to confirm former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s nomination as Energy secretary, making him the third key member of a Trump administration’s energy and environment team.  In his new role, Perry will be responsible for a broad portfolio that includes the nation’s nuclear arsenal and energy research.  The vote came after senators, eager to avoid a Friday session, agreed by unanimous consent to waive the 30 hours of debate normally required after they invoked cloture earlier Thursday on a 62-37 vote.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

The Senate on Thursday voted 58-41 vote to approve retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to lead the HUD Department.  Carson won support from Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee despite complaints about his lack of experience in housing and in managing a large bureaucracy. They praised his pledge to overcome that experience by listening and taking what he called a “holistic” approach to helping poor Americans through temporary housing assistance.

Department of the Interior

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) by a vote of 68-31, as the new head of the Interior Department.  He will be tasked with balancing what he calls his Teddy Roosevelt-inspired conservation goals with President Donald Trump’s promise to open more of the nation’s public lands and coastal areas to oil, gas and coal extraction.

Education

In President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress, he asked lawmakers Tuesday to pass and fund a school choice bill that would help low-income students attend private and religious schools, a proposal that may boost pending legislation.

Although as a candidate Trump said he wanted to spend $20 billion to fund a federal voucher program, he didn’t get into specifics Tuesday of what his proposed school choice bill should look like.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) have reintroduced legislation (S. 148, H.R. 895) that would establish a federal tax credit scholarship program where an individual federal tax credit could be up to $4,500 and a corporate tax credit of $100,000 for donating to qualified scholarship programs.

Education advocates think a tax credit scholarship initiative could garner more support in Congress than a voucher program, which senators rejected during a 2015 debate on the K-12 education bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

However, the Trump Administration has also called for $54 billion in cuts to nondefense spending – with $18-$20 billion in expected spending cuts to labor, education and health programs for FY18 appropriations.

For education, that could mean cuts in the early childhood Head Start program, predicted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).  Pell Grants could also be in danger.  Last year, House Appropriations approved a $161.6 billion spending bill to fund labor, education and health programs, but the measure didn’t pass Congress.  A $20 billion cut would represent a decrease of more than 12 percent from what was proposed for FY17.  The committee proposed cutting $569 million in the FY17 spending bill.

House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman on Labor, Health and Human Services & Education, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said he doesn’t disagree with Trump’s proposal to increase defense spending, but is skeptical that the topline spending numbers the Trump administration sent to agencies would be similar to the numbers in the final spending bill.

Energy/Environment

EPA Cuts

The Trump administration is reportedly proposing budgets cuts to the EPA that could reduce as much as a quarter of the agency’s budget, newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced this week at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. 

Pruitt also said certain grant programs like the brownfields, Superfund, and water infrastructure grant programs are essential to protect, indicating that he plans to push back somewhat against the initial Office and Management Budget proposal.  The proposal has already received pushback from lawmakers responsible for constructing EPA spending bills, as the agency will reportedly take an almost $2 billion hit in the administration’s budget proposal to Congress. 

Not mentioned as a priority, however, were other EPA program areas, like climate research, that the proposed budget may put on the chopping block.  Pruitt has emphasized his goal as EPA head is to redirect the agency to a focus on clean water and air, with an increased role for states in overseeing their own environmental needs.

Waters of the United States

President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday directing leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA to review and reconsider a rule from the Obama Administration that expanded federal jurisdiction over pollution in streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. 

The order instructs the agencies to review a 2006 opinion written by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Rapanos v. United States, which Trump administration officials say could be the basis of a different approach.  Scalia argued that federal jurisdiction extends only to water bodies with a permanent flow or non-navigable waterways that connect via surface water with areas with permanent flow.

This could lead to resubmission of the WOTUS rule, which the White House and congressional Republicans have argued violates previous Supreme Court decisions.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the House will take up the FY17 Defense Appropriations bill; House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees plan to mark-up Affordable Care Act replacement plan legislation; early next week the Senate is expected to vote to nullify additional agency rules.

The House Appropriations Committee introduced the FY17 defense spending bill on Thursday.  The bill provides $577.9 billion, an increase of $5.2 billion over the FY16 enacted level and $1.6 billion more than the Obama Administration’s request.

The House is likely to pass the defense spending measure it next week, but the Senate could have difficulty scheduling a vote.  A crowded Senate floor schedule, and the lengthy time required to consider a bill, could delay a vote.

House Committees of jurisdiction over ACA are scheduled to mark-up replacement legislation next week.  The latest House Republican plan to replace parts of the 2010 health care law still includes several controversial policies, like advanceable tax credits and a cap on tax breaks that employers get for providing insurance to their workers, according to lawmakers.  It also includes provisions to let states keep some Medicaid expansion funding.

The Senate will vote Monday on whether to repeal the Labor Department’s so-called blacklisting rule through the Congressional Review Act, which gives Republicans the power to overturn certain Obama-era regulations without any Democratic support.  The blacklisting rule requires federal contractors to disclose labor violations committed or alleged in the last three years for bidding on contracts over $500,000.  The House voted 236-187 on Thursday to pass the measure.