Federal Issues Update
April 12, 2018
Following a two-week spring recess, lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill to news that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will not be seeking reelection. Although his retirement had been rumored for months, the announcement still came as a surprise to many. His departure sets up a battle to succeed him as the top Republican in the House. Ryan’s deputies – Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) – are the two most likely contenders to replace him. There also could be others interested in the position, including Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the number four ranking Republican and the highest ranking woman in the party, as well as Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), who currently serves as chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Before leaving office at the end of his term, Ryan has signaled that he will continue to seek to overhaul entitlement spending, which currently makes up about 70 percent of government outlays. House conservatives and Budget Committee members, in particular, have urged him to seek an ambitious approach to cutting mandatory spending. While Ryan has always been interested in scaling back entitlement programs, this new push comes on the heels of a dire forecast from the Congressional Budget Office, which projects that the federal deficit will surpass $1 trillion by fiscal year 2020, two years sooner than previously estimated. While it may be possible to usher a package of entitlement reforms through the House, it would undoubtedly be filibustered in the Senate. Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already made clear that entitlement cuts will not be a major focus for the upper chamber this year.
Later today, the House plans to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The legislation (HJ Res 2), which is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), would require government spending to equal revenue starting five years after the amendment is ratified. It also would require a three-fifths roll call vote of each chamber to increase the public debt limit. HJ Res 2 would need to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both chambers and ratified by 38 states to officially become the 28th Amendment. While the vote will likely be close, the resolution is not expected to advance.
The White House is soon expected to send a request to Capitol Hill calling on Congress to rescind funding from the recently enacted fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending law (PL 115-141). While House conservatives have expressed interest in such a proposal, a number of top Republicans have criticized it, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). Still, a number of Republicans are withholding judgment until they see the administration’s plan. Regardless of what the president proposes, a rescissions package is a nonstarter for congressional Democrats.
Looking ahead, it would be difficult for such a package to pass the House, and it would face an even more uphill climb in the Senate. It should be noted that the upper chamber can pass a rescission resolution with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes usually needed to end debate on a bill. While the GOP holds a slim 51-49 majority, several Senate Republicans are skeptical of the move. In addition, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who is still battling brain cancer, has no immediate plans to return to Washington.
On April 10, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) – Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility – directing federal agencies to propose potential regulatory or policy changes to the way benefits or services are provided to families and individuals. As is the case with such orders, the EO is very broad and general in scope. It asserts that “many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds.”
Among other things, the EO focuses on enforcing current work requirements for public benefits and services and also urges the agencies to propose reforms that would reduce dependence on government programs. It also directs departments to review all existing waivers that currently exempt individuals from certain work requirements. Finally, the Order encourages federal agencies to find ways to provide state and local governments with additional flexibility to design and manage programs to meet local needs. Agencies will have 90 days to submit a report with their recommended policies to the White House.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently released final rules governing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health plans that will be sold this fall. One change that will take effect immediately – and which would also be retroactive to 2017 – is a “hardship exemption” that would exempt individuals from the individual mandate if there are either no health insurers or only one that offers a plan in their county. Additionally, individuals who oppose abortion and who also live in a county where the only available plan covers the service, would also qualify for the hardship exemption.
Governor Jerry Brown this week responded to a request from President Trump to send troops from California’s National Guard to the US-Mexico border. However, Governor Brown also emphasized that the National Guard personnel will not be used to enforce federal immigration laws or to build a border wall. Instead, their mission will be to support current efforts to combat transnational crime, including operations against drug traffickers, gun runners, and smuggling gangs. In the meantime, the governors of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona have already started dispatching troops to the border.
On April 9, a number of cabinet secretaries and agency heads signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) implementing the Trump administration’s “One Federal Decision” order. The initiative establishes a coordinated and timely process for environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects. Pursuant to the MOU, one lead federal agency will be responsible for navigating major infrastructure projects through the entire Federal environmental review and permitting process. The participating agencies will work to develop a single environmental Impact Statement and will sign a single record of decision, with the lead agency seeking written agreement from other agencies at key points. The initiative also seeks to try to quickly resolve interagency disputes.