CSAC Bulletin Article

Congress Returns to Face Lengthy Legislative Agenda
FY17 Budget Will Be Top Priority

September 8, 2016

Members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill this week following a lengthy summer hiatus to begin a brief, albeit potentially busy, pre-election session. House lawmakers are scheduled to conduct legislative business through the month of September, while the Senate is expected to hold votes through the first week of October. Both chambers are slated to return to Capitol Hill following the November 8 elections for a lame-duck session.

The number one pre-election priority for congressional leaders is figuring out how to deal with the federal budget. With the October 1 start of the new fiscal year less than a month away – and with none of the 12 annual appropriations bills finalized by Congress – party leaders have conceded that a stopgap Continuing Resolution (CR) will be necessary.

Currently under active discussion is the length of the CR. For his part, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has voiced his preference for a three-month bill, which would keep the pressure on Congress to finalize a new budget before the end of the year. A number of conservatives, on the other hand, support a longer term funding measure that would extend into 2017, a strategy that would essentially prevent a lame-duck Congress from making key budget decisions. However, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has stated that Democrats will not agree to a CR that extends beyond December 31.

Senate Begins Consideration of WRDA Reauthorization Bill

Aside from budget negotiations, the Senate this week began consideration of a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization measure. The legislation (S 2848), which the Environment and Public Works Committee approved in April, is a follow-up to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 and, if enacted this year, would put Congress back on track in terms of advancing biennial WRDA legislation.

All told, S 2848 would authorize 27 new Army Corps projects that have been reviewed by Congress and which have completed reports from the Chief of Engineers. Among other things, the legislation would authorize broad federal assistance and support for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades, drought resilience, green infrastructure, etc. It also would make several updates to the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program.

In addition, S 2848 would expand the role of local partners in implementation of water resource projects and make it easier for non-Federal partners to carry out portions of a project in advance of the Corps and receive credit for completed work. The bill also would permit non-Federal interests to provide funding to the Corps to update or modify project operations to improve water supply.

For its part, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved its own, albeit less ambitious, WRDA reauthorization measure (HR 5303) earlier this year. The House bill, which would authorize 28 Army Corps projects, includes language that would expand the definition of water-resources projects to include “environmental infrastructure” projects. This would allow the Corps to directly participate in various water supply and water recycling projects. Additionally, the legislation would allow the Corps to enter into agreements with non-federal sponsors to engage in water conservation, stormwater capture, and groundwater recharge projects.

Other Issues That Are Likely to See Action This Year

To follow is a rundown on some of the issues that lawmakers may consider in the coming weeks. While it’s likely that electoral politics will stand in the way of significant legislative achievements, party leaders will be attempting to make progress on several items, including:

Family First Act

Stalled by unnamed senators before the summer recess, there will be intense pressure in the upper chamber to pass the child welfare financing reform bill (S 3065). California has taken the lead in voicing concerns with the legislation, citing numerous issues that conflict with the prevention and group-home reforms currently underway in the state. Sponsors of the bill, however, have indicated that they will not accept amendments addressing those issues. S 3065 is supported by a majority of senators, so whether a handful of states can block passage ultimately remains unknown.

Energy Bill Conference

The first formal meeting of House and Senate conferees to a sweeping energy package (S 2102) is set to take place on September 8. The meeting will feature opening statements, but no amendments or bill text will be considered.

There are a host of divisive issues that will need to be resolved by the conference committee. For example, the House version of the legislation includes the text of Representative David Valadao’s (R-CA) drought measure (HR 2898), as well as a Republican-sponsored forest management bill (HR 2647), both of which have drawn fire from the White House. The Senate version of the energy bill has no comparable text.

Fee-to-Trust Reform

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) has been attempting to build support for his fee-to-trust reform/Carcieri fix legislation (S 1879). While Chairman Barrasso would like to bring the measure to the floor in September, there are a number of major question marks, including the potential level of support for the bill among Democratic senators and tribes.

In the House, it remains unclear whether leaders of the Natural Resources Committee will attempt to tackle Carcieri. For the time being, committee leaders are planning to hold a vote on legislation that would allow Congress to have the final say whether a petitioning Indian group can be formally recognized by the federal government. The bill (HR 3764), which is opposed by the White House, is seen, in part, as a response to the Obama administration’s recent rulemaking on federal recognition.

Drought Relief Legislation

Prospects for a California drought bill remain uncertain. While there are various legislative approaches to dealing with the drought (including the Valadao bill and a measure by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (S 2533)), perhaps the most likely scenario for movement on a drought measure is via the aforementioned energy package or, even more so, the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process. Both the House fiscal year 2017 Energy & Water appropriations bill (HR 5055) and Interior spending bill (HR 5338) include provisions that would alter the way federal resources agencies are allowed to manage California’s water supply.

Remote Sales Tax Legislation

House Republican leaders have indicated that they would like to hold votes on a remote sales tax bill in September. With House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) releasing in late August a revised discussion draft, there appears to be some renewed momentum behind the effort. At the same time, there is a long way to go before any sort of consensus is reached, with a number of key matters still unresolved.

Zika Virus

A long-stalled bill to fund a response to the Zika virus continues to be debated in Congress. This week, the Senate failed to advance a bill that would provide an additional $1.1 billion in Zika funding. The legislation also would place restrictions on funding for Planned Parenthood, which was strongly opposed by congressional Democrats.

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