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.