Update from Washington, D.C. 04/01/2011
After a week-long district work period, lawmakers returned to
Washington on March 28 to a growing list of issues to sort
through. Most of the legislative items, however, were
overshadowed by the continued stalemate over fiscal year 2011
With little progress made during recess, policymakers continued where they left off with intense rhetoric over the current year budget. Holding back a long-term compromise between House Republicans and Senate Democrats are the deep spending cuts and policy riders supported by the GOP in the Full Year Continuing Appropriations Act for 2011 (HR 1) .
Republicans remain committed to their proposed $62 billion in discretionary cuts, as well as elimination of funding for a number of contentious programs such as Planned Parenthood and the president’s health care overhaul law. Although those policy riders are not expected to gain any traction in the Democratic-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated that he is willing to look at some of the provisions, signaling what could be a step forward in passing a long-term compromise spending measure. One of the less controversial policy riders includes an amendment that would transfer $298 million from the NASA Cross Agency Support program to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program.
However, late the week of March 28, negotiators were reportedly closing in on a compromise package that would shave $33 billion in spending. Details are scarce and many GOP conservatives are likely to oppose any deal that falls well short of the $62 billion target.
Currently, the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) (PL 112-6) – the sixth CR enacted since the October 1 start of the fiscal year. Lawmakers will have another week to try to hammer out a negotiation as the current CR is set to expire on April 8. Several lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), would like the current CR to be the last. However, if a long-term spending agreement is not reached, a seventh stop-gap spending bill will be the only option on the table to keep government operations up and running.
In other budget-related matters, Senate Republicans introduced March 31 a constitutional amendment that aims to balance the budget by capping federal spending at 18 percent of the gross domestic product. The measure would also require a two-thirds majority vote from both chambers to raise taxes.
The Constitution is extraordinarily difficult to amend, requiring a two-thirds vote from Congress, as well as ratification by the required 38 states. Many lawmakers also argue that the provisions of the Republican balanced budget amendment would limit their spending power during times of economic crisis.
In other developments, legislation (S 676 / HR 1234) was introduced in the House and Senate the week of March 28 that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri v. Salazar decision. In Carcieri, the Court held that the Secretary of Interior lacks authority to take land into trust for Indian tribes that were not under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934.
According to the bills’ sponsors, the legislation – which would restore the Secretary of Interior’s authority to take land into trust for all Indian tribes – would clarify existing law and remove uncertainty caused by the Supreme Court’s action. For their part, a number of State and local governments, including CSAC, are adamantly opposed to the legislation because of the bills’ failure to address long-standing systemic flaws in the current fee-to-trust process.
Since the Carcieri decision in February of 2009, CSAC has called upon Congress to thoughtfully re-examine the fee-to-trust process and to provide for necessary reforms. Among other things, the association is advocating for clearly defined standards for trust land acquisitions, as well as sufficient notification requirements. CSAC also has been promoting that intergovernmental agreements should be mandated between tribes and local governments to require mitigation for adverse impacts of development projects, including environmental and economic impacts from the transfer of the land into trust.
In the House, the Natural Resources Committee is expected to hold hearings on the implications of the Carcieri v. Salazar decision; the committee will likely hear from a broad range of witnesses. Across Capitol Hill, a hearing schedule in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is less clear.
Also on Capitol Hill this week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee held a two-day hearing on surface transportation reauthorization. Testimony was given by over 40 transportation stakeholders from around the country. The hearing represents the culmination of a month-long series of field hearings during which time the committee has received input from state and local government representatives and industry professionals as it prepares to compose a six-year transportation reauthorization bill.
Transportation programs enacted under current law (SAFETEA-LU) expired on September 30, 2009. In order to continue authority for highway and transit programs, Congress has approved a series of short-term extensions. The current extension (PL 112-5) is set to expire on September 30, 2011.
Looking ahead, House T&I Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has indicated that his reauthorization bill will largely focus on streamlining project delivery, as well as developing innovative financing options such as bonding, public-private partnerships, and loan programs. Mica is expected to unveil a draft bill sometime in the near future.
In another transportation-related issue, on March 29 Congress passed a short-term extension (HR 1079) of programs under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), providing lawmakers with additional time to work on a long-term reauthorization without disrupting current FAA operations. The extension includes $2.5 billion for the Airport Improvement Program for an eight-month period beginning October 1, 2010. The extension is the latest amongst a long series of short-term extensions since the FAA reauthorization expired in fiscal year 2007.
On the House side, the lower chamber started debate this week on the longer-term FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011 (HR 658). The bill, sponsored by Chairman Mica, would cover fiscal years 2011 to 2014, with an overall funding level of $59.7 billion. The bill requires funding to be set at the fiscal year 2008 levels for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 and beginning in full in fiscal year 2012. In agreement with the GOP moratorium on earmarks, the measure contains no congressionally directed funding.
At press time, the House was poised to approve HR 658. Passage of the long-term FAA bill would set the stage for conference negotiations with the Senate, which passed a two-year airport reauthorization measure (S 223) in February.
Finally, the Senate debated a small business measure (S 493) the week of March 28. The bill, which would extend a number of small business programs, contains several controversial policy provisions that have heated up the seemingly neutral, bipartisan measure. Among the contentious items is a provision that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from imposing regulations that would curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The amendment, offered by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), would limit EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Air Act by stripping the Agency of regulatory authority over carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nevertheless, a vote on the McConnell amendment will largely be viewed as a symbolic stance on EPA authority since the measure is not expected to pass the Senate.