Federal Issues Update 10/10/2014
On Wednesday, October 8, President Obama and key members of his administration hosted a conference call for state and local officials on the U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic. The president opened the call by thanking state and local leaders for their ongoing efforts to keep the public healthy and expressed the need for federal, state, and local agencies to work together to prevent an Ebola crisis in the U.S. Additionally, President Obama assured officials that the administration is prepared to provide needed federal assistance to the local level to prevent and, if necessary, respond to an outbreak of the disease.
Also participating in the call was Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Tom Frieden, and Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and Deputy National Security Advisor.
Noted during the call was the fact that out of thousands of recent travelers to the U.S. from West Africa, only one case of Ebola has been diagnosed domestically – in Texas (another patient who had previously been diagnosed with the disease was recently transported to the U.S. and is being treated in Nebraska). Incidentally, just hours before Wednesday’s briefing, the patient in Texas passed away. The president expressed his condolences and stressed that lessons learned from this case will further the administration’s fight against Ebola.
Following the president’s remarks, agency leaders further discussed federal strategies to fight the epidemic, highlighting the need for local governments and hospitals to be aware of the proper procedures and protocols for identifying and responding to the Ebola virus. Each of the administration officials emphasized the importance of communication among all levels of government.
With regard to the local level, agency leaders are recommending that health officials maintain strong connections with all of the health facilities in their respective counties. Local officials also should promote preparedness at facilities in order to rapidly respond should someone in their community be diagnosed with the virus. To support such preparation, Secretary Burwell and Dr. Frieden encouraged officials to visit the CDC website, which is updated daily and holds over 100 pieces of guidance and informative documents covering the Ebola epidemic.
Additionally, county officials were advised to communicate safety measures to the public and respond to any concerns. The White House stressed that in order to avoid causing a sense of panic, officials should emphasize that Ebola is not spread through the air, by water, or by food. Rather, the virus is transmitted through close and direct physical contact with infected bodily fluids.
Secretary Johnson briefed call participants on current security measures, noting that exit screening of all outbound passengers at airports in the three Ebola-affected nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is the foremost means of preventing travelers from spreading Ebola to the U.S. and other countries. Johnson also discussed new security measures being implemented at the five U.S. airports that receive more than 94 percent of travelers from the affected West African nations. The new procedures include enhanced entry screening and providing airports with CDC quarantine stations where public health officers can further evaluate any travelers showing Ebola symptoms.
In addition to airport security, CDC and Customs and Border Protection are observing travelers entering the country at all U.S. ports of entry. Under expanded screening measures, personnel at U.S. border crossings have been trained to screen persons for general evident signs of illnesses. Federal officials are taking these precautions in close coordination with the Canadian and Mexican governments.
In concluding the discussion, White House officials reminded call participants that four Ebola epidemics in the past have been successfully contained and that public health officials maintain the knowledge to end the current outbreak in West Africa. As noted, until that happens, all levels of government need to work in concert to protect the health of the American public.
Waters of the U.S.
This past week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that the public comment period for the agencies’ proposed “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule was being extended – from October 20 to November 14. The agencies are extending the deadline in order to allow stakeholders additional time to comment not only on the proposed rule but on a finalized version of the document that provides the scientific basis for the rule (known as the Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence, or Connectivity Report (CR) for short). Although a draft version of the CR has been made available to interested parties, EPA has yet to release a final version of the report.
The agencies’ WOTUS rule remains highly controversial and is opposed by a variety of stakeholders, including many state and local governments and agricultural interests. Furthermore, the Small Business Administration (SBA) on October 1 sent correspondence to EPA and the Corps recommending that the agencies withdraw the pending rule. According to SBA, EPA and the Corps improperly certified the proposed rule under the Regulatory Flexibility Act by erroneously stating that the rule would not have a significant economic impact on small businesses. SBA also is urging EPA to conduct a Small Business Advocacy Review panel before proceeding any further with the rulemaking.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wrote to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) this week to urge him to act on a long-term transportation funding measure during the upcoming lame duck session of Congress. The Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), is responsible for the financing portion of MAP-21 reauthorization.
It should be noted that Congress approved legislation earlier this year that provides an extension of MAP-21 programs through May of 2015. The bill (HR 5021; PL 113-159) also provides $10.9 billion to keep the HTF afloat through that same date. The recent bailout represents the sixth time since 2008 that Congress has had to rescue the trust fund, as spending from the HTF has continued to far exceed its revenues.
Although Chairwoman Boxer and other transportation advocates have been calling on Congress to approve a long-term highway renewal this fall, it would appear as though action in the lame duck remains a long shot. For starters, House Republicans have not signaled their intent to move a bill during the brief post-election session. Furthermore, if Republicans manage to take control of the Senate, it is widely believed that GOP leaders will not want to move any legislation of consequence during the lame duck, preferring instead to wait until January.
Finally, in related developments, the Government Accountability Office this week released a new report on the HTF. According to the report – which examined highway program grants in fiscal year 2013 – only 10 percent of funds obligated by the Federal Highway Administration for road and bridge projects went for new construction. The balance of funds were allocated for maintenance and reconstruction of existing, outdated infrastructure.