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.