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.