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.