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Weekly Legislative Report May 12, 2017

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

Appropriations/Budget

Congress may have the freedom to make progress on the FY18 budget without endangering the FY17 reconciliation instructions for a Republican health care bill.  The Senate in 2006 adopted its version of a fiscal 2007 budget resolution and later in the year passed a reconciliation tax cut bill based on reconciliation instructions from a fiscal 2006 budget resolution.

The precedent means that the House and Senate Budget committees could mark up a FY18 budget resolution and adopt initial versions of the measure as well as begin the early stages of the FY18 appropriations process without waiting for congressional action on the health care overhaul.

The April 15 statutory deadline for both chambers to adopt a budget resolution, which sets enforceable levels for spending and taxes, passed almost a month ago.  The House and Senate Budget committees have yet to make public or mark up a budget resolution.

Senate Budget Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY) referenced the precedent this week and says he wants to take up the FY18 budget resolution “as soon as we can.”

The House passed a reconciliation bill (H.R. 1628) based on FY17 reconciliation instructions to partly repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), and the Senate is working on its own version.  But it could take weeks or months for the Senate to write and consider its bill or amendment, and for the House and Senate to attempt to pass a bill that’s been approved by a conference committee.

Still, appropriators in both chambers have begun to hold hearings in preparation for marking up the 12 FY18 spending bills, but are waiting for sub-allocations for each bill from the Appropriations chairmen before they can officially mark-up the bills.  The Appropriations chairs usually divide funds into the sub-allocations after receiving a discretionary spending topline from a budget resolution adopted by Congress.

Without a budget resolution, the House or Senate can bring appropriations bills to the floor after a chamber has passed a resolution to deem enforceable spending limits, which has not happened this year.  The 1974 budget law (PL  93-344) also allows the House to bring appropriations bills to the floor after May 15 even without a budget resolution or deeming resolution.  However, appropriators can’t write bills until they have their sub-allocations.

Education

A few weeks ago, several universities were informed their applications for Upward Bound grants would be denied due to formatting errors.  Late last week, it was reported that in response to backlash, Education Secretary DeVos instructed department officials that she was rescinding the ability for program offices to impose mandatory page length or formatting rules in grant applications.  Furthermore, she stated that non-conforming formats could not be the basis to reject grant applications.  Her memo also states the policy takes effect immediately for FY18 and any FY17 notices that have not been published.  The memo does not provide for the reconsideration of recently reject grant applications.

The Education Department also formally removed Obama proposed regulations that were to become effective this year.  The teacher preparation regulations required Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) to report on teacher placement and their evaluation ratings once employed.  The goals were to provide better transparency on effective training programs for prospective students to have a measurement to compare teacher preparation programs. 

Energy/Environment

Climate Change

Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration in Fairbanks, Alaska, acknowledging the threat posed by climate change to the Arctic and indicating the need for action to curb its impact on the region.  He met with Arctic Council, a forum made up of indigenous groups and eight countries with territory bordering the Arctic Circle.

The declaration is at odds with the Trump administration officials who have expressed skepticism of climate change and comes at a time when President Trump is weighing a potential withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.  Despite overwhelming agreement among climate scientists to the contrary, Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and vowed on the campaign trail to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement.

Methane

Senators on Wednesday voted on a Congressional Review Act resolution (H J Res 36) that would undo an Interior Department regulation limiting the release of methane from oil and gas operations on federal land.

Republicans believed they had enough votes to pass the bill, but a procedural motion to advance the resolution was defeated, 49-51. Three Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), voted “no.” This is the first of 15 CRA resolutions considered by Congress this year that failed.

The other two Republicans that voted no were Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Susan Collins (R-ME) who had said publicly they would turn down the motion.  Republicans believed they had 50 votes and Vice President Mike Pence, who was on hand for the morning vote, would break the tie.

McCain said that while he opposed the extensive reach of the regulation, he feared that a clause in the Congressional Review Act that would prevent federal agencies from redoing the rule in a substantially similar form could prevent the Interior Department from making needed improvements to preventing methane waste.

Healthcare

FDA

Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee advanced a bill (S. 934) to renew the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to collect fees from the drug and medical device industries by a vote of 21-2. 

The panel blocked an attempt from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to include language on the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, keeping the bill on a smooth path toward the Senate floor, where it is expected to be taken up next month.  The two dissents were from Sanders and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) who also supports the concept of drug importation and wants the FDA to accept more clinical trial data for drugs tested in foreign countries.

Most HELP committee members agreed that drug pricing was an issue that needed to be addressed and HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) suggested the issue could come up again when S. 934 reaches the Senate floor.

Repeal & Replace

Senate Republicans are avoiding the regular Senate committees for the development of an alternative to a House-passed measure seeking to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  This week GOP senators formed working groups to explore alternative bill options.  Some Republican senators, taking the lead from House conservatives, are backing an idea of allowing states to adjust essential benefit (EHB) coverage requirements.  The House-passed measure included an amendment that keeps federal coverage requirements but let states seek a waiver to opt out of many of the requirements.

Any action by the Senate on a repeal and replace bill will wait until at least the week of May 22, when the Congressional Budget Office is expected to release its analysis of the bill that narrowly cleared the House last week.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing to discuss Medicare policies that improve care for patients with chronic conditions.   

The Senate will also continue to consider nominations in the Administration and plans to hold a cloture vote Monday at 5:30 p.m. on Jeffrey Rosen’s nomination to be deputy secretary of Transportation.

In the House, after returning from a week-long recess break, the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will discuss biomedical research with officials from National Institutes of Health.  The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing examining the status of Medicare payment systems.

Weekly Legislative Report May 5, 2017

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

Appropriations/Budget

The fiscal 2017 omnibus bill (HR 244) was released early Monday and passed the House on Wednesday by a vote of 309-118.  Senators on Thursday voted 79-18 to clear the $1.07 trillion spending package, sending it to the White House for signature.  President Trump signed the bill into law this afternoon.

Below is a look at which agencies fared the best and worst under the spending agreement.

Winners:

  • National Institutes of Health (6.3% increase) – In Trump’s FY18 budget, he proposed an 18% cut to NIH.  Congress largely ignored the proposal and increased NIH’s FY17 funding by $2 billion, to $34 billion. The measure would boost spending specifically on Alzheimer’s disease, precision medicine and other research.
  • Department of Transportation (3.7% increase) – Overall, Transportation would receive $19.1 billion, a $681 million boost.  Within the DOT, the Federal Railroad Administration would receive a 10 percent spending increase and the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, an Obama initiative Trump has proposed eliminating, would be fully funded.
  • Department of Homeland Security (3.5% increase) – Lawmakers declined to provide any funding for Trump’s proposed physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Instead, Congress increased spending by just $1.1 billion to boost hiring for immigration enforcement and border security.
  • Department of Defense (3.5% increase)- The Pentagon would receive $516 billion in discretionary spending and an additional $77 billion for overseas contingency operations. In addition to a $5.8 billion boost Defense already received through a supplemental to a previous CR, the department would receive a total increase of 4.5 percent compared to FY16. 
  • FBI (3.3% increase)- While the Justice Department would absorb a net cut overall, the FBI would receive a $277 million spending boost to go toward fighting cybercrime, counterterrorism and other programs and the bureau will receive more than $300 million to build a new headquarters.

Losers:

  • General Services Administration (13.3% decrease)- GSA would face the largest cuts of any major agency with funding decreasing by $1.35 billion. Lawmakers said the major reductions would take place in the agency’s new construction accounts.
  • Department of Agriculture (2.9% decrease)- USDA had a $623 million reduction in discretionary spending.  However, Rural Development and the Farm Services Agency would receive a funding increase under the omnibus bill despite being targeted in Trump’s budget for cuts.
  • Department of Education (1.7% decrease)- Education would absorb cuts to its Innovation and Improvement programs and effective instruction grants.  Democrats were able to block Republican efforts to prevent enforcement of Title IX laws with respect to transgender student access to bathrooms.
  • State Department (1.1% decrease)- There is $53.1 billion in funding for State operations, U.S. Agency for International Development and foreign assistance under the bill, including $16.5 billion in overseas contingency spending.  Most of the decrease would come from a $683 million cut to payments for the United Nations and other international organizations.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (1% decrease)- Despite Trump’s proposed 31% cut to EPA in FY18, EPA will receive a little over $8 billion.  This is the first step in what will likely be more steep cuts in FY18.  The agency is currently offering early retirement and buyout incentives and would be capped at 15,000 employees, its lowest level since 1989.  EPA’s research and regulatory programs would see a $52 million cut.

Education

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing this week on the online FAFSA system breach that impacted families applying for federal student aid.   IRS, Treasury and Education Department officials testified, each of them reflecting blame for the system failures.  Rep. Virginia Foxx, Chairwoman of the House Education Committee chastised the panel and remarked the incompetence of the FSA was on full display.  Mr. James Runcie, Office of Federal Student Aid, said the IRS tool used to apply for federal financial aid will remain unavailable for those seeking help for the 2017-18 school year.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee also held a hearing this week regarding legislation to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act that has received bi-partisan support in past Congresses.  The bill simplifies the application process, increases application with today’s in-demand jobs and increases accountability to better evaluate program effectiveness.

Energy/Environment

Ethanol bill

Several Midwestern Republicans are considering holding up a bill to reverse an Obama administration drilling rule in exchange for a vote on a piece of ethanol legislation.

Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and John Thune (R-ND), along with several other Midwestern Republican Senators, are pushing legislation to overturn federal policy preventing gasoline sales with 15 percent ethanol (E15) during the summer months.  The group says it will trade its votes on a resolution undoing a federal methane regulation for the ethanol vote.  The methane regulation is an Interior Department rule forcing energy companies to curb emissions of methane escaping from wells and pipelines on public land.  It aims to discourage the practice of venting and flaring natural gas at oil wells and blocks companies from venting gas except in emergencies, phases down the amount of flaring that is allowed, and forces the businesses to detect and repair gas leaks.

But they’ll need to act quickly; under the terms of the Congressional Review Act, which provides the Senate a window of 60 legislative days to overrule a regulation, the Senate has a May 11 deadline for passing the bill.

Supporters of the methane resolution have struggled to secure the votes they need to move it to the floor and will need to bolster support for the CRA resolution and sidestep the ethanol debate by next Thursday in order to assure the bill’s passage.

Environmental lawsuits

Two environmental groups are suing the Trump administration; the first over last week’s offshore drilling executive order, and the second over the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy putting a hold on Obama’s water pollution limits from coal-fired power plants.

The first lawsuit is led by environmental law firm Earthjustice, and says President Trump cannot roll back drilling prohibitions that former President Barack Obama instituted in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans because they are permanent.

The second lawsuit is from a coalition of environmental groups saying the EPA should have sought public input before rolling back standards that could allow millions of pounds of toxic pollution to be dumped into waterways.

Healthcare

Yesterday, the House passed an amended version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by a vote of 217 – 213.  House passage came after Rep Upton (R-MI), former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep Long (R-MO) offered an amendment to provide $8 billion to offset the costs of individuals with pre-existing conditions who cannot afford their insurance premiums.  An amendment negotiated by Rep. MacArthur (R-NJ) during the recent recess that would allow states to waive essential health benefits and community rating requirements if the state has established a high-risk pool, also passed prior to final passage of AHCA.  

All Democrats voted “no” and the twenty Republicans voted in opposition.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where the process may be lengthy and several Senators said yesterday that the Senate will craft its own legislation.  The Senate bill will be developed by a working group of members from the Senate Finance, Budget and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committees.  Senate HELP Committee Chair Alexander (R-TN) confirmed that the Senate will develop its own package and reporters, “We’ll take whatever good ideas we find there [the House bill] that meet our goals.”

The package developed by the Senate workgroup will likely differ from the AHCA for both procedural and policy reasons.  As you know, many of the provisions in the bill as passed by the House likely cannot move in the Senate on the special reconciliation procedure, which only requires 51 votes for passage.  Additionally, many moderate Senators, especially those from Medicaid expansion states, have expressed concerns with the changes to the Medicaid program in the AHCA.  In a statement, Senator Portman (R-OH) said, “I’ve already made clear that I don’t support the House bill as currently constructed because I continue to have concerns that this bill does not do enough to protect Ohio’s Medicaid expansion population, especially those who are receiving treatment for heroin and prescription drug abuse.  We have an opioid crisis in this country, and I’m going to continue to work with my colleagues on solutions that ensure that those who are impacted by this epidemic can continue to receive treatment.”  

In a statement following the House vote Senate Finance Committee Chair Hatch (R-UT) acknowledged the procedural and policy challenges facing the Senate stating, “As we work to fulfill our promise to our constituents to repeal and replace the law in the Senate, we will be guided by the important principles to address costs and give American families more choices.  At the same time, we will be working to put together a package that reflects our member’s priorities with the explicit goal of getting 51 votes.  Coupled with the constraints imposed by the budget reconciliation process, we must manage expectations and remain focused on the art of the doable as we move forward.”

In terms of timing, Leader McConnell (R-KY) said the Senate will not consider a bill without a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score, which will provide cost and coverage numbers. Once a score is released, the Senate parliamentarian will review it to see what provisions comply with the reconciliation rules.  CBO’s work and the parliamentarian’s review process could take several weeks, possibly pushing Senate debate until at least June. The score and parliamentarian’s analysis will likely guide the Senate workgroup’s work; Sen. Collins (R-ME) said, “We certainly need the CBO analysis on the impact on cost and coverage before we can produce our own [bill].” 

Reiterating that Senators do not feel pressured to act quickly, Senate Majority Whip Cornyn (R-TX) made clear that the Senate is not under a deadline and said, “When we have 51 Senators we will vote but not until then.”

It is unclear if the House would be able to pass a modified bill when/if it is returned to the chamber for consideration.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will ready consideration for nominations to join the president’s administration.  One of the few ready is former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) who is Trump’s pick to be secretary of the Air Force. The Armed Services Committee voted 22-5 to advance her nomination a month ago.  She will get a confirmation vote Monday.  The Senate will next consider Scott Gottlieb, who is picked to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed a debate-limiting cloture motion on him Thursday afternoon.

The House will be in recess next week.

Weekly Legislative Report Apr 28, 2017

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

Appropriations/Budget

Fiscal Year 2017

Late Wednesday night, House appropriators filed a one-week continuing resolution to fund the government through May 5 and buy more time for negotiators to reach a final spending deal for the remainder of the current fiscal year.  The CR maintains funding levels and policy provisions under the current continuing resolution, which was set to expire at midnight tonight. 

Both the House and Senate passed the CR today, but not before some drama threatened to hold things up.  On Thursday, House Democrats, angered by Republican efforts to revive a health care bill aimed at dismantling Obamacare, warned they may vote against the CR if a vote on the GOP’s health care bill was scheduled for a floor vote this week.

The same sense of displeasure disrupted plans for swift passage of the CR in the Senate Thursday night when Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) objected to passing the measure by unanimous consent once it is approved by the House.  He said Republicans must first agree to eliminate “poison pill” policy riders that remain contested in the larger spending deal.  Schumer’s move forced the Senate to stay in session today to await House action on the CR and take its own formal vote on the measure to ensure there would be no government shutdown.

Lawmakers took a significant step toward a FY17 spending agreement this week when President Trump made two concessions that paved the way toward a deal.  He agreed to forgo immediate funding for construction of a wall along the Mexican border, settling for other border security money instead, and he agreed to continue making payments for health insurance subsidies created under Obamacare to help reduce out-of-pocket costs for those in the individual marketplace despite earlier threats that he would withhold the payments.

Leaders of both parties say they are making progress on an FY17 bill and still appear determined to get a spending deal in place to fund the government through the end of September when the current fiscal year expires.

FY18 Budget Resolution

House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) this week said that she hopes that her committee will mark up an FY18 budget blueprint that eliminates the deficit within 10 years the week of May 15, with adoption by the full House before the Memorial Day recess.  Wiping out the deficit in 10 years is estimated to require finding $8 trillion in cost savings over the decade, assuming no major increase in taxes.  Black suggested the savings could come in part by restructuring Medicare and Medicaid, but such a plan could set up a clash with the Trump administration, which has promised to avoid Medicare cuts.

Education

The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 that amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow private-sector employers to offer workers the choice of paid time off in lieu of cash wages for overtime hours worked.  The bill passed by a vote of 22 to 16.

The full Committee held a hearing on strengthening accreditation in post-secondary education and is initiating efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which efforts were advanced in the Senate side last year.  Concerns exist that the current accreditation system has evolved to focus on ensuring   quality learning outcomes and is consumed with compliance.  Other concerns have been raised that the current system can stifle innovation.  The hearing brought attention to the changes in delivering post-secondary higher education, (including STEM technical trade and on-line learning) and the need for metrics that respect the diversity of IHE missions and types of students served to assess learning outcomes that are not credit hour based.

In other education news, the Department of Education is reportedly considering in-house training to conduct reduction in force actions.  Both President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos has previously stated they are looking for areas to cut at the department and lessen the role of the federal government in education policy.

President Trump signed an executive order that empowers Sec. DeVos to conduct a study on  how the federal government “has unlawfully overstepped state and local control.”  The executive order gives Sec. DeVos almost a year to identify any regulations or guidance related to K-12 schools that are inconsistent with federal law.

Energy/Environment

Paris Climate Agreement

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), a key energy adviser to President Donald Trump during his campaign advocated Thursday that the United States remain in the Paris climate agreement, although it should demand changes to voluntary targets that do “not do harm” to nation’s economy.  Cramer led a letter with nine other GOP House members advocating that the U.S. renegotiate the global agreement’s goals for reducing climate-altering emissions from fossil fuels like coal and oil. 

The Trump administration continues to debate whether to remain in the Paris climate accord, which was agreed to by the Obama administration in 2015.  GOP Members of Congress remain split on the issue – many of them criticized Obama’s decision to enter into the agreement without congressional consent, but now see remaining in the accord necessary to advancing U.S. international interests.

Industry advocates such the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), along with 13 companies including Walmart, Google and Shell Oil, among others, also advocated staying in the Paris agreement for fear of economic fallout from leaving it.  But key administration officials like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and White House advisor Steven Bannon have pushed for the U.S. to exit.  Also advocating to exit is Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), who issued a memo this week highlighting potential negative economic impacts from remaining in the agreement. 

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration would have an official position before the G7 meetings at the end of May.  Media reports indicated that key White House advisors will meet Thursday to discuss the administration’s options.

Antiquities Act

President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to review and potentially change previous national monument designations.

At a Wednesday signing ceremony, Trump framed the order as a way to return power to states and individuals after former President Obama and his predecessors blocked development on hundreds of millions of acres of federal land and water by creating monuments.  The order is aimed primarily at the highly controversial Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3 million-acre site in Utah that Obama designated in December.  His action protected areas sacred to American Indian tribes but also prevented any potential development, like oil and gas drilling.  Trump said the designation happened “over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah.”

The review covers all monument designations over 100,000 acres going back to 1996, which includes more than three-dozen monuments.  Under the Antiquities Act, presidents have nearly unlimited power to create national monuments on land the federal government already owns.

Democrats will likely to resist any effort to change the Antiquities Act legislatively, another goal of Trump’s order.

Healthcare

ACA Repeal and Replace

There was a renewed push this week to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  On Wednesday, the House Freedom Caucus announced their support for an amendment negotiated by Rep. MacArthur (R-NJ). The amendment would allow states to waive essential health benefits and community rating requirements if the state has established a high-risk pool.

 

However, while the amendment garnered the support of more conservative Members, moderates remained hesitant to support it.  On Wednesday, House leadership posted the MacArthur amendment text on the Rules Committee website, laying the groundwork for a vote to happen as soon as today or tomorrow. However, last night House leaders announced no vote will be held until next week at the earliest.  When pressed at the House Rules Committee meeting last night on the Continuing Resolution about the likelihood of the House voting next week, Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) said the possibility is a “definite maybe.”  

In an effort to bring moderates on board, an amendment making changes to the Medicaid title of the bill is under discussion. Rep. Collins (R-NY) described the potential changes as “tweaks,” telling reporters “there are a couple of other tweaks that could occur on the Medicaid side to help in some extent, without it being such a huge issue that it would lose anybody.”  As you know, moderates, particularly those from expansion states, have been opposed to the $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid in the bill. However, significant changes could cause some conservatives, who in some instances believe the bill remains “too generous,” to flip from “yes” to “no.”

With the House scheduled to be on recess the second week in May, if they do not vote next week, the earliest opportunity after that would be the week of May 15.

Trump Administration

FDA Commissioner Nomination

On Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the nomination of Scott Gottlieb, MD, to serve as Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by a vote of 14 – 9. Gottlieb was approved on a largely party line vote with Senators Bennet (D-CO) and Whitehouse (D-RI) voting by proxy in favor of the nomination. The nomination now goes to the full Senate for a vote; a timeline for Senate floor consideration has not yet been announced.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, Senators will continue to process President Donald Trump’s nominations and will need to come up with a solution to funding the government through September.  The one week CR (H J Res 99) gives negotiators a little more time to finalize an omnibus deal.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) indicated that text of an agreement could surface Monday evening.  At that point, senators would need to reach a unanimous consent agreement to process the final bill quickly enough to avert a shutdown.

The immediate business for the Senate on Monday will be a rather customary 5:30 p.m. cloture vote to limit debate on Trump’s nomination of Jay Clayton of New York to be a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

Weekly Legislative Report Apr 7, 2017

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

Appropriations/Budget

Negotiations continued this week to try and finalize FY17 spending bills before the current continuing resolution (CR) expires on April 28.  When lawmakers return from the two-week recess in late April, they will have just four joint legislative days to complete floor action on an FY17 package or pass another short-term CR to buy more time to reach a deal or complete consideration of a package to avoid a government shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) this week said leaders expect to pass an FY17 spending bill before government funding runs out on April 28, while House lawmakers and aides have said they anticipate enacting a week-long stopgap measure to buy time beyond the April 28 deadline.

Appropriators plan to continue negotiating the remaining spending bills during the recess and hope to have a bill ready to move when lawmakers return on April 24.  However, it remains unclear if that legislative package will move first in the House or the Senate.  As previously reported, a House-passed FY17 Defense bill awaits action in the Senate and could be used as a potential legislative vehicle if the Senate acts first on a broader spending package.

House Labor HHS Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) said that negotiations during the two-week recess will be mostly at the leadership level, and that most of the 11 unfinished spending bills are now being polished, with most of the major decisions settled. In regards to the Labor HHS bill Cole said his bill has been largely “closed down” and that “we’ve signed off, the money amounts are all set.” Both Cole and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) also indicated that some of the more contentious bills may not make it into the final package, meaning the legislation could be a “cromnibus” rather than an omnibus — though most appropriators have indicated that they would prefer the latter.  Reportedly, the agreement will not include the $18 billion in cuts proposed by President Trump.  

While negotiations may be wrapping up, there are still plenty of politically charged issues that could stand in the way of a final agreement, including Trump’s $33 billion supplemental request for the military and border security.  Republican are divided over whether Trump’s supplemental request should be included in the final FY17 spending package or wait for separate legislation. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) declined to confirm this week whether Trump’s supplemental request would be included and appropriators gave conflicting signals on the shape of a final package. 

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said Trump’s military and border security money “will be part of the package, yes.” But Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) said he was concerned that including the extra money would trigger a Senate filibuster by Democrats.  Less certain is the view of the Trump administration, which must decide whether to veto any emerging spending deal if the president’s supplemental request isn’t part of it.

Whatever spending bill ultimately emerges will likely need the support of House Democrats, which makes it a lot riskier to try to include things like funding for President Trump’s border wall, among other things.  Cole commented, “If you can’t pass repeal and replace, believe me, you’re not passing a spending bill with Republicans only.”  The House conservative House Freedom Caucus did however indicate this week that they won’t hold up the next must-pass government funding bill with fights over Planned Parenthood or health care with former caucus chairman Rep. Jim Jordan saying efforts to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood should be dealt with in Obamacare replacement legislation. 

We will continue to keep you posted as the April 28 deadline approaches.

Education

Democrats of the House and Senate Education Committees sent a letter to the U.S.  Department of Education requesting they enforce ESSA requirements that that direct states and school districts to consult with local stakeholders.  Recently, the Department issued revised template for state accountability plan submission and Democrats noted that the stakeholder consultation requirement was removed.  In the letter, members asked Secretary DeVos to reply to their concerns by this Friday.

In other education news, the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence was launched this week by Democrats on the House and Senate.  The task force will work to develop legislative proposals and initiatives to address sexual violence, including those on college campuses and is co-chaired by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Ann Kuster (D-NH), Patrick Meehan (R-PA) and David Joyce (R-OH).  They expect to conduct hearings on topics and protect potential budget cuts on specific sexual violence issues.  Last year Rep. Speier introduced a bill that in part created a joint interagency (Depts. Of Justice and Education) Campus Sexual Violence Task Force.

Energy/Environment

Carbon Capture

Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Carbon Capture Improvement Act on Wednesday, which would allow companies to use tax-exempt bonds issued by states and local governments to fund carbon capture energy projects.

The Senators said the bill could help expand the use of carbon capture technology, reduce carbon emissions and support the construction sector.  Previous legislation to incentivize carbon capture has not yielded any success in Congress.

Coal

Environmentalists and Democratic states are fighting the Trump administration’s request that a federal appeals court put on hold its case regarding former President Barack Obama’s main climate change rule, the Clean Power Plan.

The coalition, led by the Environmental Defense Fund said the request to pause consideration of the case is extraordinary and goes against legal precedent.  They told the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that delay “would have the effect of improperly suspending the rule without review by any court, without any explanation, and without mandatory administrative process.”

The appeals court heard oral arguments in the case against the 2015 rule in September.  It could issue a ruling any day, but the Trump administration asked that it pause its consideration while the EPA undertakes its regulatory process.  Supporters of the regulation argued that the EPA is trying to short-circuit the regulatory process by having the court stop its case.

Pesticides

The Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on Wednesday asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used to kill insects on crops, including some meant for human consumption.  The pesticide has been linked to nervous system and brain disorders.  Under pressure from groups, the Obama administration in 2015 proposed banning it for use on food crops.

Agriculture groups and chemical companies opposed that decision, and Trump’s EPA agreed.  Last week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said his agency would not ban the pesticide in order to “provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment.”

The Pesticide Action Network and NRDC said that decision puts public health at risk and want the court to force regulators to crack down on the chlorpyrifos.

Weather

The House on Tuesday approved the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 (H.R. 353) aimed to modernize government weather forecasting and increasing reliance on the private sector to save money and lives.  The legislation then moved to the Senate, who passed the bill on Thursday sending it to the President’s desk for signature.

Introduced by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) in the House and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) in the Senate, the bipartisan bill seeks to improve the forecasting ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), including the National Weather Service by requiring NOAA to establish and modernize programs to enhance tornado warning and hurricane forecasts, conduct a study of gaps in weather radar coverage around the nation, and advance weather satellite and data innovation, among other items.

Supreme Court

The Senate on Friday voted 54-45 to approve Neil Gorsuch as the next Supreme Court justice on a mostly party-line vote.  He will be sworn in Monday, the court said.

Gorsuch will fill the vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016, and fulfills President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to find an equally conservative replacement.

To overcome Democratic objections to Gorsuch and advance to the confirmation vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Republicans used the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules so that it only takes 51 votes to overcome a filibuster on a high court nominee — allowing Republicans to proceed to a confirmation vote without any help from Democrats.  McConnell on Friday said as he looked back on his Senate career that was one of the “most consequential decisions I’ve ever been involved in.”

Washington Outlook

Congress has adjourned and will be in recess the next two weeks for the Easter and Passover holidays.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of April 24-28 when Congress returns

Weekly Legislative Report Mar 31, 2017

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

Appropriations/Budget

With just eight days remaining in which both chambers are in session before current government funding expires on April 28, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate republican leaders expect a FY17 spending package to begin in the House.

Only one of the regular 12 appropriations bills was signed into law at the end of 2016 – the House Military Construction-VA measure (PL 114-223).  Lawmakers defaulted to a stopgap to fund the rest of the federal government through the end of April (PL 114-254).

If House negotiations fall through, the Senate has the FY17 Defense spending bill (H.R. 1301) passed by the House March 8 to use as a legislative vehicle.  Senators could attach a continuing resolution or omnibus to it that funds the rest of the appropriations bills that have not been enacted.

The White House asked earlier this month for appropriators to pass a $30 billion defense supplemental and the $3 billion border security supplemental during the current fiscal year, which began October 1.

The Office of Management and Budget proposed paying for those increases with an $18 billion cut to domestic discretionary spending.  The administration did not originally detail what agencies and departments should lose funding in the current fiscal year, but suggested cutting Pell Grants by $1.3 billion; the National Institutes of Health by $1.2 billion; and the Community Development Block Grant program by $1.5 billion, among changes to several other federal budgets.

House leadership has not commented on whether an omnibus would fund the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Education

The Department of Education on Wednesday cancelled a grant program initiated last fall by then Sec. John King.  The $12 million grant program, Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities, offered funding for planning, not implementation, for school diversity/integration programs. 

The Department of Education is also shutting down four programs it has been running to test new approaches to federal financial aid.  The Experimental Sites Initiative, which gave colleges latitude to test ways to limit the amounts of unsubsidized federal loans that students could borrow, were informed of the termination in a letter sent last week.  The letter noted that several other high-profile experiments would be continuing, including one on dual high-school and college enrollments, another allowing Pell Grants for prisoners, and the program known as Equip, which makes federal financial aid available to unaccredited educational provider.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also issued a notice of an increase in the Post-9/11 GI Bill maximum tuition and fee amounts payable and the increase in the amount used to determine an individual’s entitlement charge for reimbursement of a licensing, certification, or national test for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Energy/Environment

EPA

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Tuesday that directs the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Clean Power Plan, which sets limits on carbon emissions from power plants. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is currently considering a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservative states, energy companies, business interests and others, who sued to stop the rule in 2015 after the Obama administration finalized it.  EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was Oklahoma’s attorney general at the time, was one of the leading challengers.  Late Tuesday, Trump administration attorneys asked the court to hold off on ruling on whether the Clean Power Plan is legal.

Environmental advocates have said they will oppose any efforts to shortcut the court process and will push for a decision.  However, most of the targeted regulations will be protected by legal hurdles that may take years to overcome.

On Wednesday, the House voted 228-194 to pass the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act to restrict the kind of scientific studies and data that the EPA can use to justify new regulations.  The bill would prohibit the EPA from writing any regulation that uses science that is not publicly available.  It’s the latest push by House Republicans to crack down on what they say has turned into an out-of-control administrative state that enforces expensive, unworkable regulations that are not scientifically sound.

But Democrats, environmentalists and health advocates say the HONEST Act is intended to unnecessarily restrain the EPA, and would leave them unable to write important regulatory protections, since the agency might not have the ability to release some parts of the scientific data underpinning them.

Coal Leasing

On Wednesday, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke formally lifted the ban on new coal leasing on federal land, a policy shift that was one of the cornerstones of the climate and energy executive order that President Trump signed on Tuesday.  Interior also suspended a review of federal coal-leasing rates that the Obama administration and environmental activists had touted as a win-win for the climate and for taxpayers.

The order, while fulfilling a key campaign promise from Trump, generated swift opposition from environmentalists and public lands supporters, who immediately sued over the order lifting the coal-leasing moratorium.

But Zinke said he is still committed to one of the basic goals of that review, which was establishing an Interior Department task force to consider raising royalty rates for coal mining.

Nuclear Waste

Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday to ask for an examination of the Department of Energy’s management of nuclear waste cleanup for Cold War legacy sites across the country.

The Committee’s leadership seeks information on how the DOE assesses its own environmental cleanup decision-making processes and how it determines a budget for its Office of Environmental Management, which is charged with cleaning up sites contaminated by the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The Trump administration requested $6.5 billion for the program in its FY18 “skinny budget,” released earlier this month.  The GAO listed DOE’s contract management in the cleanup office and in its National Nuclear Security Administration as a reason for highlighting the two program areas in its “2017 High-Risk List,” a biennial report on federal government programs most susceptible to waste and mismanagement.

GAO noted in the report that DOE has made progress since 2015 on one of five recommendations — leadership commitment to fixing the problem, but the two programs struggled to mitigate risks and “have also demonstrated limited progress in contract management, particularly in the area of financial management.”

DOE Acting Assistant EM Secretary Sue Cange announced earlier in March that it would launch a new strategic planning initiative to better tackle the longer-term challenges the DOE cleanup program faces by assessing strategies that present opportunities to reduce life-cycle costs, address high risks early and/or achieve other tangible benefits.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote Monday to kick off a week-long confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.  With the panel’s 11-member GOP majority, the Judiciary Committee is expected to advance the nomination to the Senate floor.

While the House was unable to pass the American Health Care Act (H.R. 1628) last week (the Affordable Care Act (ACA)/Obamacare repeal and replacement legislation), House republicans have reportedly decided to make another attempt to repeal and replace core provisions of the ACA, though there is no agreement on the proposal or on how to close the policy gap between the moderates and the conservative Freedom Caucus. 

While action is unlikely before Congress adjourns for the Easter/Passover recess, there appears to be a strong desire to move quickly on this in May.  If the House passes a bill largely based on the American Health Care Act, there would be considerable pressure on Senate republicans to pass it with only modest changes to avoid having the bill bog down again in the House.

The decision to attempt another health reform bill does not have the support of all House republicans, and it seems that Senate GOP leaders and the Trump administration do not believe a second effort is a good idea and would prefer to set healthcare legislation aside to move to their next top priority, tax reform.

Congress will turn its attention this spring to the FY18 appropriations bills which face another round of spending cuts in defense and non-defense appropriations due to sequestration.  The previous bipartisan budget deal to replace a portion of the sequester cuts expires on April 28 with the FY17 appropriations bills. 

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.

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 17, 2017

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations

Senior GOP House appropriators have been directed by leadership to commence spending negotiations with their Senate counterparts over final government funding for the current fiscal year. 

The tentative plan is to complete the 11 remaining appropriations bills for FY17 and attempt to pass them either individually or in small groups.  Given the limited floor time available for appropriations and higher-profile legislative items on the early agenda, it would be very difficult to pass spending bills individually.  Most federal agencies are currently operating under a short-term continuing resolution that expires April 28.

Budget

House and Senate Republicans are still working to complete action on the FY17 Budget Reconciliation bill that would “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  In particular, the Senate is working closely with the House to ensure that provisions included in the final reconciliation bill would not be considered “fatal flaws” by the Senate Parliamentarian under reconciliation (e.g. provisions under the jurisdiction of a Committee that was not given reconciliation instructions).  While the exact timing of bringing the legislation to a vote is not clear, it must be completed before the FY18 Budget Resolution is passed, which Congress hopes to do in May. 

The expectation is that the FY18 Budget Resolution will contain reconciliation instructions related to tax reform – although no clear guidance has been given from the Administration on what they would like tax reform to look like.  One of the biggest questions is whether tax reform will be revenue neutral or if it will be a net tax cut.  Some Republicans argue that to actually be revenue neutral, the final bill would have to cut taxes by $800 billion to offset the cost of the ACA. 


The FY18 Budget Resolution will also provide the Appropriations Committees with their top line numbers to begin the FY18 process.  The Committee believes they can still complete the FY18 process by the end of the fiscal year, even with a later than normal start.

Looking ahead, assuming the FY17 appropriations process is completed by the end of April, with either an omnibus or a continuing resolution, the next major action forcing event will likely come in the late summer when the start of the new fiscal year looms, and Treasury exhausts its “extraordinary measures” used to extend the debt ceiling.  This could also coincide with the budget reconciliation bill addressing tax reform. 

Cabinet Nominations

Department of Commerce

President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Commerce Department, billionaire Wilbur Ross, cleared a procedural hurdle Friday that sets up a confirmation vote for after lawmakers return from the week-long recess.  The Senate agreed, 66-31, on a procedural motion to limit debate to 30 hours before a final vote, which could be held as early as Monday, February 27.

Department of Labor

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he will nominate R. Alexander Acosta as Labor secretary, one day after the president’s first choice, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, withdrew from consideration.

Acosta is a former member of the National Labor Relations Board and is currently dean of Florida International University’s law school.  Acosta would be, if confirmed, the first Hispanic Cabinet member under Trump.  He also has served as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.  In 2006, the Senate confirmed him by a voice vote as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Puzder backed out Wednesday after intense opposition from Democrats but also concern from some Republican senators over his flexible views on immigration, his revelation that he had employed an undocumented worker as a housekeeper and that he had not paid state and federal taxes for her until his nomination.

Department of the Treasury

The Senate confirmed Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood film financier, to be Treasury secretary on Monday by a vote of 53 to 47.  During a long debate over Mnuchin’s credentials, Democrats argued that his experience on Wall Street exemplified corporate malpractice that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The Senate unanimously confirmed David Shulkin to head the Department of Veterans Affairs Monday evening.  Shulkin sailed through his confirmation hearing, where he touched on the department’s backlog of benefits appeals and holding VA employee accountable.

Environmental Protection Agency

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was confirmed 52-46 by the Senate on Friday to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt is expected to implement President Donald Trump’s promises to limit business regulation.  Democrats railed against his nomination in an overnight debate and sought to delay a vote until after his office complies with a state judge’s order to release thousands of emails related to his correspondence with coal, oil and gas companies regarding his EPA suits.  A motion offered by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to extend debate until February 27 was defeated, 47-51, before the confirmation vote began.

Office of Management and Budget

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) was confirmed 51-49 Thursday by the Senate as director of the OMB.  Mulvaney was criticized by Democrats as too conservative for the position, but defended by Republicans as crucial for implementation of President Trump’s fiscal agenda.  Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona spoke out against Mulvaney, saying he has not demonstrated enough support for military spending in his votes in the House.

Small Business Administration

Linda McMahon, a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, was confirmed by the Senate Tuesday to lead the Small Business Administration.  Her confirmation moved smoothly through the Senate and she had the backing of Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy.  Blumenthal defeated McMahon in a 2010 Senate race and Murphy defeated her in 2012.

Earmarks


House Republicans appear to be pushing ahead with plans to consider lifting the ban on earmarks.  Late last year Speaker Paul Ryan promised the Republican Caucus they would explore restoring earmarks after he put a halt to consideration of rolling back the ban on earmarks during a closed-door House Republican Conference meeting in November.

Republicans banned earmarks under former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in 2010, but pressure has grown to lift the ban, partly to ease passage of spending bills and give lawmakers more power over executive branch agencies.  Fiscal conservatives, however, support the ban as a way to control wasteful spending.  

On Tuesday, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) said the Rules Committee will hold hearings on allowing for the return of “congressionally directed spending” in coming months and make a recommendation on the matter before the Fourth of July recess.  A final decision would then be up to the entire Republican conference.

According to Sessions, “The process will include testimony before Rules from members of Congress, what Sessions called “guests,” constitutional experts, members of the Trump administration, and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers and law enforcement.”

Energy/Environment

Dept. of Energy Loan Guarantee Program

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing Wednesday to discuss the Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program.

Committee members aimed to assess market impact and risk associated with federal direct loans and loan guarantees for energy innovation, and to consider options to reform the program.  For more information on this hearing, including witness testimony and opening statements, see here.

Endangered Species

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss a possible update to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to protect business interests as well as threatened plants and animals. 

EPW Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) said the act (PL 93-205) has not been updated since the 1970s; and of 1,652 species of animals and plants in the United States listed as endangered or threatened since the law took effect, only 47 have been delisted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the act.  Other GOP lawmakers on the committee said the listings can impede economic development, are costly for businesses, are often dismissive of state and local preservation efforts, and it can often take too long to delist species that have been revived.

Democrats on the Committee agreed an update may be in order as long as it does not compromise the on the successes achieved with the bill.  For more details on the hearing, see here.

Environmental Law

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Subcommittee on Oversight held a joint hearing Thursday, entitled, “Modernizing Environmental Laws: Challenges and Opportunities for Expanding Infrastructure and Promoting Development and Manufacturing.”

During the hearing, members and witnesses examined challenges and opportunities for expanding infrastructure, economic redevelopment, and manufacturing by modernizing certain environmental statutes in the Subcommittee’s jurisdiction, including the Clean Air Act (CAA), and the Brownfields provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).  For more information on this hearing, see here.

Supreme Court

Senator Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has expressed his desire to complete the confirmation process of Neil Gorsuch to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court before the Easter recess.  Judge Gorsuch’s nomination hearing is scheduled to begin on March 20 and is expected to last three or four days. 

Washington Outlook

Both the House and Senate will be in recess next week for the President’s Day holiday.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of February 27 – March 3 when Congress returns to session.

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 10, 2017

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations/Budget

Congress

Republicans’ difficulties in coming up with legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could incite a chain reaction, delaying the FY18 budget resolution, appropriations and a tax overhaul.

The reconciliation measure to partially repeal and replace ACA (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), which House committees are currently working on, has to be passed by Congress before lawmakers can move forward on a FY18 budget resolution.  The repeal bill will use reconciliation instructions in the FY17 budget resolution (S Con Res 3) adopted by Congress in January; so if a FY18 budget resolution were adopted before the repeal bill passed, the new resolution and its reconciliation instructions would eliminate the privilege enjoyed by the repeal bill.  As you know, advancing repeal legislation through the expedited reconciliation process allows it to pass in the Senate with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes. 

Initially, GOP lawmakers said the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, which are writing the repeal legislation, would likely report to the House Budget Committee by the end of February.  That timetable has been pushed into March as the committees struggle to write a repeal with elements of replacement that will satisfy GOP conservatives and moderates in both chambers and avoid disruptions in health care to Americans.  This would allow the Budget Committee to mark up a FY18 budget resolution in late March, bring it to the House floor later that month or in early April, making it possible for both chambers to adopt a budget resolution by April 15.

Just as a delay on the repeal bill would hold up the FY18 budget resolution, lack of action on the resolution would pose an obstacle to quickly taking up the FY18 appropriations bills and tax overhaul. 

The budget resolution provides an enforceable topline on spending for appropriators to subdivide their spending allocations into individual appropriations bills.  It is possible for the House to consider FY18 spending bills without a budget resolution, but doing so would complicate and slow the process, and it might not succeed. 

White House Budget

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday the Trump administration will release its budget request soon, but provided few additional details.  Spicer said the White House plans to make changes to revenue and spending in the budget request as well as provide a reduction in the annual deficit.  He did not specify if the budget he referred to will be an outline or the full budget request, but most predict that it will be a “skinny budget” – a term used to describe the budget request outline that new administrations often send to Congress their first year in office to get the budget process started.

The administration missed a statutory deadline this week for its budget submission; the statute requires a budget must be submitted the first Monday in February.  However, it is common to miss the deadline among new presidents, the previous three presidents also were unable to meet the deadline in their first year in office.

Also holding things up- Trump’s pick for director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), has not been confirmed by the Senate yet.  The two Senate committees with jurisdiction over the budget, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget, voted Feb. 1 along party lines to send Mulvaney’s nomination to the Senate floor.

Education

Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie after a contentious nomination process that divided the Senate’s education committee.

After a flood of calls from constituents opposing DeVos’ confirmation, Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska broke ranks with their party, the first GOP lawmakers to do so during the Cabinet nomination process.

DeVos is an advocate for school choice and voucher programs that allow low-income students to take taxpayer dollars with them to private or charter schools.

Shortly after DeVos was confirmed by the Senate, the House passed two resolutions to overturn regulations crafted by the Obama administration under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); one to end department regulations dealing with state assessments (H.J. Res. 57) and the other teacher preparation programs (H.J. Res. 58).  The legislation has not yet been taken up in the Senate.

A separate bill (H.R. 899) by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) was introduced in the House seeking to terminate the department altogether.  However, the legislation is unlikely to go anywhere due to the complexity of dismantling a department as well as the federally funded programs for low-income students it runs.

Energy/Environment

The Army Corps of Engineers officially granted the final permit needed to finish construction of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline on Wednesday.  The decision follows an executive memo issued by President Donald Trump last month directing the expedited review and completion of the environmental review holding up the project.

A pipeline construction site became the focus of intense protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux throughout 2016.  The group feared that the pipeline, which would need to cross at Corps-managed Lake Oahe in North Dakota, could expose the tribe’s only drinking water supply to contamination.  In response, the Obama administration announced in December it would not grant the easement without conducting another environmental assessment with more input from local and tribal stakeholders, stalling the project.

The corps said Tuesday that the environmental review was not needed to grant the easement, which will allow the pipeline to pass a North Dakota lake from which the Standing Rock Sioux Native American tribe draws most of its drinking water, but that it would continue to ensure the stipulations of the easement are closely followed so as not to contaminate the water.

Transportation/Infrastructure

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the modernization of U.S. infrastructure and get input from transportation leaders from rural areas as lawmakers and the new administration assemble an infrastructure package.

One of Trump’s campaign promises was to pump $1 trillion over 10 years into ailing roads, bridges and airports.  The proposal that has been floated that would offer federal tax credits to private firms that finance transportation projects.  Although the details of the plan have not been released, it seems to favor projects where investors could reliably assess risk and forecast revenue and profit. 

Many conservatives prefer this funding mechanism, as opposed to using a huge amount of federal dollars.  However, most GOP leaders on the Senate transportation committees are from rural states where there may not be profitable projects.  Senate EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) said, “funding solutions that involve public-private partnerships, as have been discussed by administration officials, may be innovative solutions for crumbling inner cities, but do not work for rural areas.”

During her Senate confirmation hearing, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao assured Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) that the administration would ensure equal access to transportation opportunities among rural and urban areas.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) suggested direct federal spending could be one way to address rural needs as long as it’s offset elsewhere in the budget.  He said Tuesday that lawmakers still await an administration infrastructure proposal addressing rural areas that lack “the luxury” of denser populations that would provide a return on investment.

Panelists at Wednesday’s EPW hearing advocated for a diverse set of funding tools in an infrastructure bill and also called on lawmakers to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund; strengthen formula programs; and ensure regulations take rural and urban differences into account.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will continue marathon votes on President Trump’s cabinet nominations.  The Senate was in session for 57 consecutive hours this week just to confirm Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was also confirmed by the full Senate early this morning. 

Senators will debate the nomination of Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary today, with a confirmation vote set for Monday evening.  Also on the schedule for votes next week is David Shulkin to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Andy Puzder for Secretary of Labor, Rep. Ryan Zinke’s (R-MT) for interior secretary, Linda McMahon to lead the Small Business Administration and energy secretary nominee Rick Perry, all who are non-controversial and should be confirmed relatively quickly.  However, nominees Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s (R-SC) to lead the Office of Management and Budget and Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency could also be voted on next week which may trigger more all-night sessions, given the Democratic opposition to both candidates.