Federal Issues Update
March 1, 2018
After a short recess, Congress returned to the nation’s capital this week, although both chambers faced a light legislative agenda. The House shortened its schedule to just two days following the death of Reverend Billy Graham, whose body was laid in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday and Thursday. Graham is the first religious leader and only the fourth private civilian – joining civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and two Capitol Police officers killed while on duty – to have received this honor.
Across Capitol Hill, Senate leaders struggled to figure out a path forward on gun control legislation in the wake of yet another mass shooting last month at a Florida high school. In a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers this week, President Trump embraced comprehensive gun safety reforms, including enhanced background checks, closing the gun show loophole, and increasing the minimum age for firearms purchases. Looking ahead, it remains unclear if congressional Republicans and Democrats will be able to forge any type of legislative compromise on what has historically been a highly controversial and often partisan issue.
In other news, the Supreme Court on February 26 declined to take up a key case related to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In an unusual move, the Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to expedite consideration of a federal district judge ruling on DACA, but the justices for the high court agreed that the case should continue to work its way through the standard appeals process. The Trump administration had previously set a deadline of March 5 to end DACA for current recipients, but the lower courts have issued a nationwide injunction against terminating the program.
If Congress is unable to agree on a permanent DACA solution in the coming weeks, a short-term extension of the program could potentially be included in an omnibus spending measure that must be approved by March 23. The recent action by the Supreme Court, however, could temporarily remove the impetus for such action.
In addition to DACA, the upcoming budget bill could become a vehicle for a number of other high profile policy issues, including a long-overdue extension of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program and a short-term extension of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While congressional appropriators are generally wary of adding such policy riders to spending legislation, there is increasing pressure on Congress to address these and other issues.
Of particular interest to California’s counties, Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) have continued to push for the inclusion of an amendment that expressly prohibits the Department of Justice from using federal resources to prosecute individuals or businesses that are acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. While the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer language has been included in previous spending bills dating back to fiscal year 2015, House leaders blocked a vote on the amendment during early negotiations on the fiscal year 2018 spending bill. In addition, Representatives Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO) are urging House leaders to include language that would go even further and prevent DOJ from using federal resources to prosecute individuals or businesses in states that have legalized cannabis in any form.
On Thursday, March 1, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing entitled “The Administration’s Framework for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America.” Testifying before the panel was Elaine Chao, the secretary of the Department of Transportation, and R.D. James, the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.
Secretary Chao and Assistant Secretary James discussed various elements of the administration’s infrastructure plan that fall under the purview of their agencies, namely surface transportation initiatives and water projects, respectively. In addition, both officials highlighted the president’s “One Federal Decision” initiative, which is designed to help speed the delivery of new infrastructure while at the same time reducing costs. Specifically, the process is designed to more effectively handle the permitting of complicated, multi-agency projects in order to meet President Trump’s new two-year timeline for completing environmental reviews.
As expected, the question of how to finance the administration’s infrastructure plan received a great deal of attention during Thursday’s hearing. All told, the White House has proposed $200 billion in direct federal spending in order to leverage as much as $1.3 trillion in state, local and private investment. Incidentally, the source of federal investment for the package would be derived from cuts to several existing transportation programs.
For his part, Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking member of the EPW Committee, noted during the hearing that President Trump recently expressed support for a 25-cent fuel tax increase as a possible means of financing the infrastructure plan. Carper believes that a bump in the gas tax could pave the way for a bipartisan deal on infrastructure. Conversely, the chairman of the EPW panel, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), has said that raising the gas tax is a non-starter for him.
Additional hearings on the Trump administration’s infrastructure proposal are expected to occur in the weeks ahead.