Federal Issues Update 09/16/2013
After a month-long congressional recess, lawmakers returned to
Washington the week of September 9 to confront a busy legislative
agenda. The fall session began with a discussion about
whether to authorize a military strike against the Syrian
government for its alleged role in an August 21 chemical attack
that killed more than 1,400 civilians. However, on
September 10, President Obama announced that the U.S. would
instead pursue a diplomatic solution, allowing Congress to shift
its focus to pressing fiscal matters, including the need to
prevent a government shutdown.
Lawmakers have yet to finalize any of the 12 individual spending bills for the upcoming budget year that begins on October 1, prompting the need for a stopgap spending measure. For their part, House GOP leaders on September 9 introduced legislation (HJ Res 59) that would fund the federal government until December 15 at the current-year, post-sequestration level of approximately $986 billion. The proposal also would require the Senate to take a separate vote on defunding the Affordable Care Act.
It is unclear if this will be enough to appease conservatives, many of which view the current approach as a gimmick and are, therefore, backing a more forceful approach that would prohibit any funding of the health care law as part of the continuing resolution (CR). There are also others who are demanding that leadership hold the line on spending at $967 billion.
While House leaders are hopeful that they can dispense with the CR this week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has signaled that the lower chamber could forego next week’s scheduled recess to continue negotiations if no agreement is in place.
In a related development, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew formally announced that the government would exceed its borrowing authority by mid-October. Lew warned that Congress must increase the nation’s $16.7 trillion spending limit by the October deadline or risk defaulting on its current debt obligations. Notably, the government reached its spending limit in May, but the Treasury Department has used so-called “extraordinary measures” to temporarily delay the need for another increase.
House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), are insisting that any debt limit increase be accompanied by equal or greater cuts in federal spending. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has expressed its desire to raise the nation’s borrowing limit without any extraneous policy add-ons.
Aside from the aforementioned fiscal issues, the House is slated to restart the stalled Farm Bill process. House leaders have struggled to gain consensus on a Farm Bill re-write and were forced to pass an agriculture-only measure (HR 2642) in July after a comprehensive bill (HR 1947) was rejected on the House floor. The lower chamber is scheduled to vote on a nutrition bill this week that would reduce funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $40 billion over the next decade. By comparison, the Senate-approved Farm Bill (S 954) would reduce SNAP funding by $4 billion.
With the extension of the current Farm Bill slated to expire on September 30, it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will be able to put their partisan differences aside to produce a new long-term reauthorization, or perhaps even a short-term extension.
In other news, the House will likely consider forest management legislation (HR 1526) later this week that would, among other things, address the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program. Specifically, the bill would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a “Forest Reserve Revenue Area” within each unit of the National Forest System. Under the legislation, USDA would have a fiduciary obligation to produce a minimum amount of commercial timber in these Revenue Areas for the financial benefit of local counties. Additionally, the legislation would provide a one-year extension of SRS funding to give counties adequate time to adjust to the new payment structure.
Additionally, on the SRS front, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) on September 4 issued subpoenas to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for documents related to the administration’s decision to subject the SRS program to sequestration. It should be noted that the Committee sent a letter to both agencies in March requesting information on how the decision was reached. However, neither OMB nor USDA responded to the committee’s request for information or to subsequent requests for documents.
A full list of the specific documents and information sought in the subpoenas can be found here.
Finally, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee on September 12 unveiled legislation (HR 3080) that would authorize a variety of water infrastructure projects under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), including port, levee, drinking water, dams, and environmental restoration projects. The Senate passed its version of the measure (S 601) in May.
Similar to S 601, the House bill would require the secretary of the Army to conduct a comprehensive review of the Corps’ levee vegetation removal policy, a key CSAC priority. 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 require 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.
In addition, the bill includes provisions designed to accelerate the completion of water infrastructure projects, including language designed to expedite project reviews. Specifically, the measure would cap review costs at $3 million per project and require that they be completed within three years.
Like its Senate counterpart, the House measure avoids specific project earmarks, which have been a staple of past Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) authorizations. The Senate bill would grant the Corps authority over what projects should move forward. This approach, however, is a bit controversial to House members who are concerned about giving the Corps too much decision-making authority over projects. Instead, the House measure would require Agency-designated projects to be reviewed and approved by Congress before moving forward.
The T&I Committee is currently scheduled to consider the legislation on September 19 and lawmakers hope to bring it to the House floor for a vote in October.