Federal Issues Update 10/25/2013
With the latest fiscal crisis temporarily averted, House lawmakers turned their attention this past week to other legislative business. While several bills were considered earlier in the week, the lower chamber was in recess on Thursday and Friday to allow members time to travel to the funeral of the late Representative C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). Young, who was the longest-serving Republican member of the House, passed away on October 18 at the age of 82.
For its part, the upper chamber was in recess this week, with senators slated to return to Washington on October 28.
Among the legislation considered in the House was a major rewrite of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). In a rare display of bipartisanship, the chamber approved the $8.2 billion measure (HR 3080) on an overwhelming 417 to 3 vote. The bill, which has received the support of the White House, would authorize U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) water resource-related activities, including flood damage reduction and ecosystem restoration projects. For detailed information on HR 3080, please see below.
In other news, behind-the-scenes discussions have continued in recent days between staff to newly appointed members of a bicameral budget conference committee. Appointment of the conference committee was required under the bipartisan fiscal agreement (HR 2775/PL 113-46) that ended the government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling. While the primary task of the 29-member panel is to negotiate a fiscal year 2014 budget resolution by a statutory deadline of December 13, it is expected that committee members will discuss broader fiscal issues, including potential changes to the tax code and entitlement reform.
In official committee action, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on October 24 to examine the highly publicized problems associated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) new federal health care exchange website. Testifying before the committee were the lead contractors for the federal exchange.
During the hearing, most of the contractors testified that despite difficulties many consumers have had with the website, individual functions and processes have performed adequately. At the same time, the contractors placed ultimate responsibility for ongoing technical problems, including the inability of many users to create accounts and submit applications for enrollment, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The committee is scheduled to hear from Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a follow-up hearing on October 30.
As indicated above, the House of Representatives approved this week a major water resources reform and project authorization measure. Among other things, the bill would authorize funding for water resource projects under the purview of the Corps of Engineers, as well as establish a new process for water resource project selection. Under the legislation, the Corps would be required to annually publish a notice in the Federal Register requesting project proposals from non-federal interests (including local flood control agencies) regarding water resource development needs. In turn, the Corps would review the submissions and provide Congress with an annual report of projects that meet specified criteria. Lawmakers would then use the information to determine authorization priorities in future water resources development legislation.
HR 3080 also would streamline the Corps’ study and project review process. Pursuant to the bill, the cost of conducting feasibility studies would be limited to $3 million, studies would need to be completed within three years, and all three levels of the Corps – district, division, and headquarters – would be charged with conducting a study concurrently rather than sequentially. The process is largely based on the Corps’ recent project modernization process known as the 3×3x3 rule.
Additionally, the legislation would create a new consolidated environmental review process for water resource projects whereby the Corps would serve as the lead agency for all environmental reviews. As the lead agency, the Corps would invite the participation of any other jurisdictional agency, consult with those agencies, and establish a schedule for completion of a single, consolidated environmental impact statement.
The House bill also includes a section that would require the secretary of the Army to conduct a comprehensive review of the Corps’ one-size-fits-all levee vegetation removal policy. In carrying out the review, the secretary would need to consult with other entities, including representatives of state and local governments, federal agencies, and appropriate nongovernmental agencies.
Furthermore, the secretary would be required to consider whether the Corps’ vegetation guidelines can be amended to promote and allow for consideration of variances on a regional or watershed basis, a key consideration given the diversity of California’s flood protection and water delivery system. The measure calls 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. Passage of the aforementioned levee vegetation provisions remains a top legislative priority for CSAC.
It should be noted that during floor consideration of the bill, lawmakers adopted an amendment that would preclude the Corps from requiring the removal of existing vegetation from levees until the agency’s revised policy guidelines are adopted. Under the amendment, an exception would be made for vegetation that presents an unacceptable safety risk. CSAC strongly supported the amendment, as did a number of members of the California congressional delegation, several of whom spoke in favor of the proposal.
The next step in the WRDA reauthorization process will be the appointment of House and Senate conferees, who will be charged with hammering out differences between the chambers’ water infrastructure bills. Although the measures are similar in several respects, there are a number of key differences. For example, the Senate bill (S 601) would require the secretary of the Army to solicit and consider the views of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences as part of the levee vegetation policy review process. The House bill, on the other hand, would not require the secretary’s findings to be peer-reviewed.