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.