Update from Washington, D.C. 02/01/2013
Last week, after officially being sworn in for a second term, President Obama addressed the nation and laid out a surprisingly aggressive agenda for the next four years. Although he did not offer any concrete proposals in his inaugural address, the president highlighted the need for action on global warming, immigration reform, and gun control.
Recognizing the political obstacles in Congress to comprehensive
climate change legislation, the president signaled that his
administration would press ahead with regulatory efforts to
address greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, climate change
advocates, such as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), do not expect congressional
action on a comprehensive measure in the near future. Instead,
they have pledged to support additional administrative
For her part, Boxer has indicated a willingness to take a more piecemeal approach to the problem. In fact, she introduced legislation (S 52) on January 22 that would improve energy efficiency in federal buildings. Furthermore, she has expressed an interest in legislation that would fund energy efficiency projects in local communities.
In response to another Obama priority, Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of Congress have introduced a number of proposals to strengthen the nation’s gun laws. Notably, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) unveiled legislation (S 150) on January 24 that would reinstate and considerably expand the expired federal ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Unlike the previous assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, the new proposal does not have a sunset date and is intended to be permanent.
On the immigration front, a bipartisan group of Senators revealed
their intentions to craft a comprehensive immigration plan. This
so-called “Gang of Eight” includes Senators John McCain (R-AZ),
Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ),
Charles Schumer (D-NY), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Robert Menendez
(D-NJ), and Michael Bennet (D-CO). Their proposal, which has yet
to be written, will seek to enhance border security, provide a
pathway to citizenship, and create an employee verification
On January 29, President Obama released his own blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. Like the Senate working group’s proposal, Obama’s plan would also include a path to citizenship and better enforcement of immigration laws. A bipartisan group of House members is reportedly working on a set of principles as well, which will be released in the coming weeks.
Sandy Aid Package
In other news, the House and Senate cleared a $50.5 billion aid package for victims of superstorm Sandy. The funding, which is in addition to $9.7 billion that has already been approved, includes $11.5 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, $10.9 billion for local transit systems, and $5.4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers. Additionally, the legislation would devote $16 billion to fund Community Development Block Grants, the majority of which will be shared with the victims of other federally declared disasters dating back to 2011.
Aside from the Sandy relief measure, Congress was also able to
approve legislation (HR 325) to suspend until May 19 the nation’s
$16.4 trillion debt ceiling. This gives lawmakers more time to
address other looming budget deadlines, including the
across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to begin on March 1 and
the March 27 expiration of the current stopgap spending law (PL
112-175). Notably, the measure also requires lawmakers in each
chamber to adopt a budget blueprint by April 15 or risk having
their paychecks withheld. This provision was designed by House
Republicans to prod Senate Democrats to produce a budget
resolution, which they have not done since 2009.
For that matter, the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Patty Murray (D-WA), announced that her panel would, in fact, proceed with a budget resolution for fiscal year 2014. Murray is expected to aggressively pursue additional revenue as part of her budget proposal. House Republicans, on the other hand, will likely seek changes to entitlement programs and pursue deep spending cuts.
In other legislative developments, Representative Doris Matsui
(D-CA) introduced on January 23 legislation (HR 399) that would
require the Secretary of the Army to conduct a comprehensive
review of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee vegetation removal
policy. The bipartisan bill, entitled the Levee Vegetation Review
Act, is cosponsored by 25 members of the California congressional
The Corps’ levee vegetation policy requires local agencies to remove trees and bushes from their levee systems. Ostensibly, the policy is intended to reduce any potential weakening of or damage to levees from root growth and overturned trees. It should be noted, however, that there is limited data on the scientific relationship between vegetation and levees, as well as little evidence that vegetation is a significant contributor to poor levee performance.
Estimates from the California Department of Water Resources indicate that in order to comply with the Corps’ current policy, local flood control agencies would have to remove trees on 1,600 miles of Central Valley levees at a cost of roughly $7.5 billion. While local agencies can apply for a variance to the policy, the cost is estimated at $450,000 per levee mile.
Under HR 399, the secretary would be required to take into account several key factors when undertaking the policy review process, including the varied interests and responsibilities in managing flood risks, such as the need to provide the greatest safety benefit with limited resources. The bill also would require the secretary to consider factors that promote and allow for variances from the national guidelines on a regional or watershed basis, a key factor promoted by CSAC.
Additionally, the legislation would require the secretary to solicit and consider the views of the National Academy of Engineering as part of the review process.
To see CSAC’s recent press release regarding the introduction of HR 399, please click on the following link: CSAC Press Release – HR 399.
Update on Obama’s Cabinet
Finally, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Energy Secretary
Steven Chu both announced this week that they would not be
returning for Obama’s second term. The president has yet to
announce a successor for either post. At this point, however, the
likely candidates to head the Department of Transportation are
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Pennsylvania
Governor Ed Rendell, and National Transportation Safety Board
Chairwoman Deborah Hersman.
In a related development, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) was easily confirmed by the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton as the new Secretary of State. Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, nominated to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is next in line for consideration. Hagel’s road to confirmation will not be as smooth as Kerry’s, as he faces opposition from many of his former Republican colleagues.