Update from Washington, D.C. 04/20/2012
Following their two-week spring recess, members of Congress
returned to the nation’s capital on April 16 to face a growing
list of issues to sort through.
The Senate focused much of its attention on legislation that would significantly overhaul the operations and finances of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). In a cost-cutting move, the struggling agency announced earlier this year a plan that includes closing thousands of post offices and half of the nation’s mail processing centers, extending delivery times for first-class mail, and eliminating Saturday delivery.
After some disagreement about the floor process for the legislation, Senate leaders struck an agreement Thursday evening on a list of amendments to consider when the measure comes before the full Senate next week. As currently drafted, the bipartisan measure (S 1789) would delay the Postal Service’s proposed move to a five-day delivery schedule for at least two more years. It would also require the agency to downsize, rather than close, most of the processing facilities it wants to shut down.
Aside from postal reform, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) proceeded to a markup on a long-term deficit reduction plan modeled on recommendations from the president’s 2010 fiscal commission. Conrad moved ahead with his plan despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) stated insistence that he would not bring a budget resolution to the floor. Reid has maintained that the Senate does not need a budget resolution because last year’s debt limit deal (PL 112-25) already set an overall spending cap for fiscal year 2013. In somewhat of a compromise between Conrad and Reid, the committee did not take votes or allow amendments.
Senate Republicans, however, are still expected to push for votes on several budget proposals in the coming weeks, and may even try to force a vote on Conrad’s proposal. In addition, Republican leaders are likely to seek a vote on the budget resolution (H Con Res 112) put forward by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and adopted by the House last month.
In related budget news, appropriators in both chambers this week began to unveil their draft spending bills for fiscal year 2013 despite working under different discretionary caps. Senate appropriators will proceed with the $1.047 trillion spending cap set in PL 112-25, up slightly from the current year’s $1.043 trillion level. For their part, House appropriators are expected to endorse lower spending allocations based on the $1.028 trillion discretionary spending level outlined in the lower chamber’s fiscal year 2013 budget resolution.
The Senate Appropriations Committee considered two draft fiscal year 2013 spending bills this week, namely Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD).
Overall, the CJS bill would provide $51.9 billion in discretionary spending for the Commerce and Justice Departments, as well as NASA and other agencies. The total is $1.1 billion less than what was enacted in fiscal year 2012 and the same as President Obama’s request.
With regard to the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), the bill includes $255 million for fiscal year 2013. The recommended funding level is $15 million more than current spending.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House CJS Subcommittee approved its own measure Thursday that would provide roughly $760 million less than its Senate counterpart. The subcommittee included $165 million for SCAAP, or $75 million less than the fiscal year 2012 spending level.
CSAC is in the process of exploring potential amendments that could boost funding for SCAAP in fiscal year 2013.
Senate appropriators also advanced a fiscal year 2013 T-HUD spending measure that would provide $53.4 billion in discretionary funds for the Transportation and HUD departments, a drop of nearly $4 billion from the 2012 enacted level. It should be noted that the legislation would maintain highway and transit programs at current funding levels.
The bill also includes the Obama administration’s $500 million request for the TIGER grant program, which supports a variety of transportation and infrastructure project grants. Of those funds, $120 million would be reserved for projects in rural communities.
In other transportation developments, the House approved on April 18 legislation that would extend surface transportation programs through the end of the fiscal year. Advancement of the short-term bill (HR 4348), which was cleared on a 293-127 vote, represents the latest strategy in the House GOP’s effort to spur action on a long-term highway and transit reauthorization measure.
At this juncture, the House Republican strategy is proceeding as intended, as Senate Democrats have called for House leaders to quickly name conferees. The Senate is expected to set up a conference by substituting the two-year, $109 billion highway bill (S 1813) it passed last month for the language in the latest House extension, then passing the measure by unanimous consent. House leadership then intends to use the five-year bill it was unable to bring to the floor as the basis for negotiations in conference.
Notably, House Republicans have included in their short-term package a provision intended to force the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. The Office of Management and Budget has released a Statement of Administration Policy indicating that the administration strongly opposes the House legislation, due in large part to the inclusion of the Keystone provision.
Additionally, the House extension includes project streamlining provisions from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s (R-FL) original transportation bill (HR 7), including a proposed environmental “reciprocity” program. Specifically, under the measure, a State would be permitted to use State laws and procedures to conduct reviews and make project approvals in lieu of Federal environmental laws and regulations if the Secretary determines that State requirements provide protection that is substantially equivalent to applicable Federal laws.
The aforementioned language is consistent with the reciprocity proposal (HR 2389) that Representative Gary Miller (R-CA) developed in conjunction with CSAC.
In other news, as part of a House budget reconciliation measure expected to be considered on the floor in May, the House Agriculture and Ways and Means Committees this week adopted cuts to several human services programs.
For its part, the Agriculture Committee adopted by voice vote cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), including cutting the SNAP benefit and making it more difficult for recipients of other human services programs to automatically qualify for SNAP. The Ways and Means Committee approved a provision to terminate the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) beginning on October 1, 2012. California receives about $150 million annually in SSBG funds and targets them primarily to child care and other children’s services.
The SNAP and SSBG provisions will be bundled into a larger House budget package containing savings which are intended to obviate or lessen the need for across-the-board cuts in January 2013. It should be noted that the House budget bill will likely be rejected by the Senate. The SNAP cuts, however, are likely to be considered during the Farm Bill reauthorization process later this year.