Federal Issues Update
This week, the U.S. Senate approved two more members of President Trump’s cabinet. On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary by the narrowest of margins as every Democrat and two GOP Senators – Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine – voted to oppose DeVos. The resulting 50-50 split required Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tiebreaking vote. It should be noted that this is the first time that a vice president’s vote was needed to confirm a cabinet member.
On Wednesday, after a lengthy and contentious debate, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was confirmed to serve as the nation’s next attorney general. The final vote fell largely along party lines, with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) joining his Republican colleagues to support Sessions. Incidentally, the confirmation vote was largely overshadowed by an incident on the Senate floor in which Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was barred from speaking. After Senator Warren began reading from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King that criticized Sessions for his civil rights record, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Warren of impugning a fellow member of the Senate. After being warned, the chamber voted along party lines to censure Warren, preventing her from making any additional comments on the floor.
The Senate will next consider the nomination of Representative Tom Price (R-GA) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Once Price is confirmed, the Senate will move on to President Trump’s pick to lead the Treasury Department, Steve Mnuchin.
Across Capitol Hill, the House on February 7th approved a joint resolution of disapproval (HJ Res 44) that would overturn an updated land-use planning rule, called “Planning 2.0,” issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The regulation, which took effect on January 11th, is designed to improve BLM’s ability to address landscape-scale resource issues and to respond more effectively to environmental and social changes. The rule shifts responsibility for drafting resource management plans from BLM field offices to officials in Washington, but also creates additional opportunities for public input earlier in the planning process. Critics, however, have expressed concerns that the rule will affect the ability of local governments to effectively participate in the planning process.
The upper chamber is expected to take up the House-passed resolution of disapproval in the near future.
House Natural Resources Committee Holds Organizational Meeting, Sets Priorities
The House Natural Resources Committee adopted its Authorization and Oversight Plan, which outlines the committee’s primary objectives for the 2017 and 2018 sessions. Pursuant to the plan, the committee intends to conduct aggressive oversight with respect to a number of major program areas, including those dealing with Indian affairs, water and power, federal lands, energy, and climate change.
With regard to federal land policy, the plan expresses the committee’s intention to explore ways for locally elected officials to have more input into federal land management decisions in their communities.
Of additional interest to California’s counties, the House panel intends to examine, among other issues, the Department of the Interior’s fee-to-trust process and Indian gaming. Hearings on both issues, which are closely linked, are expected to occur at some point in the 115th Congress.
According to the oversight plan, to date, the Interior Department has failed to cooperate with the committee in identifying a potential resolution to the Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision. In Carcieri, the Court ruled that the Secretary of the Interior’s trust acquisition authority extends only to those tribes that were “under federal jurisdiction” as of the 1934 enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Since that time, many tribes have called on Congress to reverse the Supreme Court’s action while many local governments, led by CSAC, have pushed for a comprehensive overall of the Department of the Interior’s fee-to-trust process.
Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Infrastructure
The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing entitled “Oversight: Modernizing our Nation’s Infrastructure.” Appearing before the committee were a number of state and local officials, including Grant County (OK) Commissioner Cindy Bobbitt, who presented testimony on behalf of the National Association of Counties (NACo).
Commissioner Bobbitt, who hails from a small county in her home state of Oklahoma, highlighted the challenges facing rural counties throughout the nation, including shifting demands on transportation infrastructure and the rising costs of public works projects. Bobbitt provided a set of policy recommendations to the committee, which included: increasing federal funding for locally owned bridges that are off of the National Highway System (NHS); ensuring an increased focus on safety and high-risk rural roads; and, increasing the role of counties on the statewide planning and project selection process.
For his part, the chairman of the EPW Committee, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), stated the importance of finding new ways of funding rural infrastructure projects. While Chairman Barrasso acknowledged that public-private partnerships can work well to finance surface transportation and water infrastructure projects in urban areas, he indicated that rural projects are not the best candidates for loans. The chairman also indicated that various federal rules and regulations can have the effect of delaying key infrastructure projects.
Looking ahead, the EPW Committee will likely hold additional hearings prior to considering any sort of infrastructure spending package.
In other developments this week, House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) conveyed his support for tapping corporate profits returned from overseas to help finance a public works bill. While using “repatriated” tax revenues to pay for infrastructure projects garnered some level of interest when Congress debated a long-term transportation measure in 2015, lawmakers ultimately shelved the idea in the face of criticism that the proposal amounted to a tax increase. This year, however, and with President Trump calling for as much as $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, repatriation appears to be gaining renewed traction in Congress.
Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act
Congressmen Paul Gosar (R-AZ) recently introduced bipartisan legislation – the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act (HR 825) – that would streamline the permitting process for wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects on federal lands. Specifically, the measure would limit NEPA reviews through the use of programmatic environmental impact statements. The bill also would establish a revenue-sharing structure to ensure that local governments receive fair value for the energy produced.
Under the bill, funds generated by energy development would be distributed to states, counties, and various conservation efforts. Specifically, 25 percent of revenues would go to the state where development takes place, 25 percent would go to the county of origin, and 15 percent would be directed to the U.S. Treasury. The remaining 35 percent would be deposited into a fund that would be used for conservation purposes and to enhance recreational opportunities in nearby communities. The measure also ensures that counties would not experience a corresponding reduction in their federal Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) as a result of the additional revenue generated.
It should be noted that Gosar is the new chairman of the Natural Resources’ Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. Accordingly, he is in a key position to advance the legislation during the 115th Congress.
Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) introduced legislation (HR 975) this week that would protect marijuana users and businesses from federal criminal penalties, as long as they are in compliance with state law. The bill, referred to as the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017, would essentially give states the authority to determine their own cannabis policies. HR 975 was introduced with 12 bipartisan cosponsors, a list which includes Representatives Tom McClintock (R-CA), Duncan Hunter (R-CA), and Barbara Lee (D-CA).
Notably, recent spending bills have included language barring the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute individuals who are acting in compliance with their state’s marijuana laws. However, these spending restrictions are temporary and must be renewed during each budget cycle. If enacted, HR 975 would provide more long-term certainty.
Emergency Forest Restoration Act
Congressman Tom McClintock, who serves as chairman of the House Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Federal Lands, recently introduced legislation – the Emergency Forest Restoration Act (HR 865) – to ease environmental restrictions on forest-thinning projects for dead and dying trees. Specifically, HR 865 would grant a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for forest management activities on National Forest System lands to address disease or insect infestation. Furthermore, the bill’s expedited process would only apply to projects located in a state that has issued an emergency declaration.
McClintock and other GOP lawmakers have long contended that strict environmental laws and the mismanagement of the nation’s national forests are the primary cause of the bark beetle infestation and the rise in catastrophic wildfires. On the other hand, Democrats are concerned by efforts to limit environmental reviews and fear that the proposal would lead to clear-cutting projects within the National Forests.
VOCA Bill Introduced in House
Last Friday, the co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus – Representatives Ted Poe (R-TX) and Jim Costa (D-CA) – introduced legislation designed to ensure that Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds are spent on their intended purposes. Under the bill (HR 818), revenues deposited into the Crime Victims Fund, all of which are derived from criminal fines, forfeitures and other penalties, could not be redirected to other federal programs or purposes.
It should be noted that beginning in fiscal year 2000, Congress imposed a cap on the amount of funds that can be disbursed from the VOCA account. The move, which was intended to ensure a stable level of funding for VOCA-related activities, has resulted in far less funds being spent on direct crime victim services when compared to the amount of revenues being deposited into the account. By way of illustration, roughly $12 billion was deposited into the Crime Victims Fund from fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2014. Congress, however, voted to disburse only $3.6 billion for VOCA programs.
Looking ahead, fiscal year 2017 VOCA funding remains unsettled pending the outcome of the upcoming budget deliberations.