Federal Issues Update
With the start of the new fiscal year just days away, tension is
nearing an all-time high at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as
members of Congress and Obama administration officials prepare to
deal with the repercussions of a potential shutdown of the
federal government. As lawmakers ping-pong dueling spending
bills across Capitol Hill, it remains uncertain whether a
short-term funding deal will be struck that would keep government
programs operating beyond September 30.
At press time, the Democratic-led Senate was poised to amend a previously-approved House bill that would keep the government funded through December 15. The House measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), also would defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as prioritize future debt payments in case the government defaults on its obligations.
As expected, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will hold a series of votes that would strike the House bill’s controversial provision to defund the ACA, as well as remove the debt-payment language. Additionally, the Senate is expected to change the duration of the CR from December 15 to November 15, a move intended to put additional pressure on House Republicans to negotiate an omnibus appropriations bill that would replace sequestration spending levels over the course of the next two fiscal years.
Further complicating the likelihood of a deal that would
avert a government shutdown, House Republican leaders are
discussing the possibility of amending the Senate’s version of
the CR once it is sent back to the House. Specifically, GOP
leaders are considering the possibility of including several
small-scale changes to the ACA, such as repealing a Medicare
advisory board, blocking federal contributions that help pay for
lawmakers’ health coverage, and/or scrapping a medical device tax
that helps fund the health care law.
If House leadership opts to further modify the Senate’s CR, there will be little time for the upper chamber to formulate a legislative response given the October 1 start of the new fiscal year. Accordingly, House and Senate lawmakers will likely work throughout the weekend in an attempt to reach agreement on a final stopgap spending measure, though it remains unclear what would be included in a final bill.
In other developments, the House last week voted to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding by nearly $40 billion over the next ten years. The 217-210 vote, in which 15 Republicans joined all Democrats in opposition, came on the heels of a previously failed attempt to pass a nutrition bill. The goal of the GOP majority is to combine the SNAP legislation (HR 3102) with an already-passed agriculture measure as part of a unified five-year Farm Bill reauthorization.
It should be noted that the previous attempt failed due in large part because conservative members believed that the costs of the bill were too high and that deeper cuts to SNAP were needed. All told, the reductions in HR 3102 are twice as large as the previous version of the bill, and 10 times greater than the SNAP cuts included in the Senate-passed Farm Bill (S 954). A large share of the cuts in the House measure would be achieved by only allowing categorical eligibility determinations for families receiving cash assistance from other federal programs, such as CalWORKs. The legislation also would sever the streamlined eligibility between the receipt of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits and SNAP.
Looking ahead, the magnitude of the cuts included in the House legislation will make finding a compromise on a new Farm Bill very difficult. Additionally, while passage of the House measure may help jump-start discussions on the broader Farm Bill, House negotiators have not yet been named. However, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has indicated that he plans appoint conferees in the coming weeks. Despite the September 30 deadline, most farm programs will continue through the end of the calendar year.
Secure Rural Schools
In the absence of final action on a new Secure Rural Schools
(SRS) reauthorization package, and in a victory for California’s
forest counties, the House recently approved legislation – the
Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 – which provides for a one-year
extension of SRS. Similar to the previous extension,
payments to counties would be five percent less than the prior
year. The Senate is expected to clear the final bill (the
upper chamber had approved a previous version of the legislation
with the one-year SRS extension) before October 7 or risk
creating an artificial helium shortage.
In other developments, the House approved on September 19 a forestry bill – the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act (HR 1526) – that would, among other things, address the expiration of the SRS program. Specifically, the legislation would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a “Forest Reserve Revenue Area” within each unit of the National Forest System. In turn, USDA would have a fiduciary obligation to produce a minimum amount of commercial timber from each area for the financial benefit of local counties that have traditionally relied on SRS payments. The legislation would also provide an extension of SRS funding to give counties adequate time to adjust to the bill’s new payment structure.
The legislation has little chance of passage in the Senate, as Democrats have expressed concerns over provisions of the bill that would limit environmental reviews. The White House, for its part, has threatened to veto the measure.
On September 19, the House Transportation and Infrastructure
(T&I) Committee approved a Water Resources Development Act
(WRDA) reauthorization bill (HR 3080). The bipartisan
legislation would provide for a number of key water resources
reforms, including various provisions aimed at streamlining the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) study/project review
In addition, and as reported in the September 16 edition of the Legislative Bulletin, the legislation includes a robust section on the Corps’ levee vegetation removal policy. Inclusion of the section represents a victory for CSAC, which has been working to include provisions on levee vegetation as part of this year’s WRDA reauthorization process. Specifically, HR 3080 would require the secretary of the Army to conduct a comprehensive review of the Corps’ policy. In conducting the review, the secretary would be required to consult with other entities, including representatives of state and local governments, federal agencies, and appropriate nongovernmental agencies.
This provision also would require the secretary to consider whether the Corps’ policy can be amended to promote and allow for consideration of variances on a regional or watershed basis. The bill would call for the secretary to base variances on such factors as: soil conditions, hydrologic factors, vegetation patterns and characteristics, environmental resources, levee performance history, institutional considerations, and other relevant factors.
While the provision also would provide for a full public review, it would not require any type of peer review. The Senate-passed measure, on the other hand, would require the Secretary to solicit and consider the views of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.
According to T&I Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), HR 3080 will likely be considered on the House floor the week of October 7. In anticipation of consideration by the full House, CSAC prepared a letter to the California congressional delegation expressing support for the vegetation provisions. The correspondence also requests several modifications to the bill language. The letter can be accessed by clicking on the following link: CSAC Ltr to House Delegation – Levee Vegetation – 9-26-13
On September 19, the House Committee on Natural Resources’
Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs held a hearing
on “Executive Branch standards for land-in-trust decisions for
gaming purposes.” The hearing comes in response to concerns
that have been expressed by tribes, local governments, and others
that the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) policy guidelines do not
adequately take into consideration the adverse impacts of
off-reservation gaming. Accordingly, Chairman Don Young
(R-AK) and other members of the subcommittee called on BIA to
reexamine its current standards.
Four witnesses were invited to provide testimony, including: (1) Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; (2) Todd Mielke, Spokane County Commissioner and President of the Washington State Association of Counties; (3) Hazel Longmire, Vice-Chair of the Colusa Indian Community Council; and (4) Alexander Skibine, Professor, University of Utah.
Assistant Secretary Washburn provided the committee with a broad overview of how BIA reviews land-into-trust applications. According to his testimony, BIA adequately considers the concerns of all stakeholders, including the applicant tribe as well as the impacted state, local and tribal governments and the public at large.
Commissioner Todd Mielke and Vice-Chair Hazel Longmire disagreed with Washburn’s assessment and offered their personal experiences with the process. In both cases, Mielke and Longmire felt that BIA did not adequately consider their concerns. For its part, CSAC will be submitting written testimony for the record that focuses primarily on the need for Congress to address the flaws in the fee-to-trust process.
Remote Sales Tax
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) on
September 18 released a framework of principles that will guide
his approach to remote sales tax legislation. In the past,
Goodlatte has expressed concerns about the challenges faced by
businesses in collecting and remitting sales taxes to a number of
different jurisdictions. He also has expressed the need for
safeguards to ensure that states cannot discriminate against
out-of-state retailers. His framework, however, would
address both of these concerns.
Rather than amend legislation – the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 (S 743) – which was approved by the Senate earlier this year, Chairman Goodlatte is expected to draft a new bill that will incorporate his framework. At this point, however, it is unclear when such legislation will be unveiled. It should be noted that the chairman may seek to package online sales tax legislation with other related issues, including a permanent ban on internet access taxes and a moratorium on new wireless taxes.