Update from Washington, D.C. 05/11/2012
Members of Congress returned to Washington on Monday, May 7
following a one-week recess to face a packed legislative agenda.
In the Senate, lawmakers spent much of the week tied up in a
debate over how to proceed to legislation (S 2343) that would
prevent a student loan interest rate hike. Although Democrats and
Republicans agree that Congress should act by a July 1 deadline
to extend the current 3.4 percent interest rate for one year,
both parties remain gridlocked over how to pay for the extension.
Without an agreement on the spending offset, Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was forced to table the bill late
In the House, lawmakers focused on several budgetary items this past week, including a controversial bill (HR 5652) that would replace the automatic spending cuts called for in last year’s debt-limit law with a series of reductions in mandatory spending programs. After a highly partisan debate, the House cleared the bill on a 218 to 199 vote. It should be noted that the legislation will not be considered by the Democratic-controlled Senate – and is opposed by the Obama administration – and is therefore unlikely to become law.
Under the GOP bill, which is a companion to the budget resolution that the House adopted in March, discretionary spending in fiscal year 2013 would be cut by $19 billion. Additionally, the legislation would repeal nearly $100 billion in automatic spending cuts, known as a budget “sequester,” and substitute them with more than $310 billion in targeted mandatory spending reductions over ten years.
Mandatory spending cuts include adjustments to Medicaid, such as extending for another year the Affordable Care Act cuts to the Disproportionate Share Hospital payment program, which supports safety net hospitals. Additionally, the House bill would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by phasing out on June 30, 2012 the 13 percent boost in benefits enacted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the benefit boost is currently slated to expire on October 31, 2013). The measure also would eliminate the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG); California, which uses the funds to support services to persons with disabilities, as well as provide day care and foster care services, would lose $204 million in SSBG funding.
In other budget-related developments, the House approved on Thursday its fiscal year 2013 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) spending package (HR 5326). Passage of the measure marks the first appropriations bill that has been cleared by either chamber in the 2012 session.
Debate on the CJS bill was marred by partisan bickering over a series of controversial amendments, several of which were adopted, that bar the use of federal funds for various agency activities. The addition of the policy riders will likely make for tense negotiations with the Senate later this year.
During House consideration of the legislation, lawmakers approved on a 206-204 margin an amendment that would increase funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program by $126 million. Under the amendment, COPS hiring program funding would be restored to fiscal year 2012 spending levels of $166 million.
At the committee-level, on Wednesday, May 9, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee approved its fiscal year 2013 spending measure. Although the bill would cut the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget by $484 million, first responder programs would receive a boost. Under the bill, $2.8 billion would be provided for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) first responder grants, or an increase of $400 million over the fiscal year 2012 level.
In other news, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy held a hearing on May 9 to discuss the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP, which is currently operating under a short-term extension, is set to expire at the end of the month and is nearly $18 billion in debt since paying out massive claims for damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
It should be noted that Senator David Vitter (R-LA) recently indicated that he intends to offer the Senate’s five-year NFIP overhaul bill (S 1940) – which was approved by the Banking Committee late last year – as an amendment to any piece of legislation that comes to the Senate floor. Senator Vitter also recently introduced a bill (S 2344) that would extend the NFIP though the end of 2013; the extension measure is seen as a fall back in case Congress is unable to finalize a long-term flood insurance reform effort this year.
The House approved its own five-year NFIP overhaul bill (HR 1309) last July.
The 47-member transportation reauthorization conference committee
convened its much-anticipated first meeting on May 8. Conferees
used the inaugural session to make opening statements and discuss
their expectations for advancing a successor to the nation’s
surface transportation law, known as SAFETEA-LU. For the most
part, members expressed optimism that the committee would be able
to work in a bipartisan fashion to produce a final bill that
could be voted on by both chambers of Congress in the near
Chaired by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the committee will be attempting to finalize a new highway and transit package before the current extension expires on June 30. Given the considerable number of issues that will need be reconciled before the deadline, however, reaching a timely agreement will be extremely challenging.
Moreover, there are several major controversial items that could bog down the conference negotiations, including debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Language that would mandate approval of the cross-country pipeline was included in the House transportation measure, but is not included in the Senate’s version. President Obama has issued a veto threat over the Keystone provision.
This particular conference committee is somewhat unusual in that conferees will need to reconcile the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion reauthorization measure (S 1813) with a House-passed 90-day extension (HR 4348). Theoretically, conferees may only address issues that are included in one or both of the aforementioned bills, but House GOP leaders have indicated that they intend to use their stalled five-year reauthorization package (HR 7) as the basis for the negotiations.
CSAC, in partnership with the Regional Council of Rural Counties (RCRC), has weighed in on the debate by outlining in correspondence the top priorities for the associations. Additionally, CSAC is continuing to work with Chairman Boxer, conferees, and members of the California congressional delegation in an effort to ensure that the final transportation bill advances counties’ priorities.
Secure Rural Schools Reauthorization
This week, 27 senators wrote to Senate transportation
reauthorization conferees to urge that an extension of the Secure
Rural Schools Program, as well as the Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes
(PILT) program, remains in the final surface transportation bill.
An amendment to the Senate’s highway bill that would extend the
programs for one year had been agreed to on the floor earlier
this year, making the SRS-PILT extension a “conferenceable” item.
Both Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Boxer voted in favor of
the amendment, which was approved on an overwhelming 82-16
In the letter to conferees, senators indicated that inclusion of the SRS funding is critical to counties across the country, whose budgets are facing drastic cuts and potential insolvency. According to senators, the transportation legislation provides the last opportunity to pass an extension before layoffs take place and are made permanent for road crews, teachers, and other county workers across rural America.
State Criminal Alien Assistance Program
As reported above, the House approved this week its fiscal year
2013 CJS appropriations bill. The legislation, which would
provide a total of $51.1 billion in fiscal year 2013 spending,
represents a reduction of $1.6 below current spending and $731
less than the Obama administration’s budget request. Among other
things, the bill would provide $165 million for the State
Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), or a proposed cut of
$75 million from current spending.
Across Capitol Hill, the Senate Appropriations Committee-approved CJS spending legislation includes $255 million for SCAAP, or a $15 million boost in funding. The difference between the two chambers spending bills will need to be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee later this year.
Army Corps of Engineers’ Levee Vegetation Policy
Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees recently
approved their respective versions of the fiscal year 2013 Energy
and Water (E&W) Development Appropriations legislation (HR
5325/S 2465). The bills provide, among other things, funding for
federal water projects under the purview of the Army Corps of
Engineers (Corps) and the Bureau of Reclamation. The measures
also fund the Department of Energy.
The Committee Report that accompanies the Senate’s E&W spending bill includes language submitted by Senator Feinstein stating that the Corps’ initial research effort on levee vegetation indicates that minimal data exists on the scientific relationship between woody vegetation and levees. The Report also urges the Corps to continue to conduct additional scientific research on the topic and encourages the Corps to take seriously its requirements under the Endangered Species Act and to clarify how it will apply those considerations in the final vegetation variance policy.
The Senate Committee Report language comes on the heels of CSAC and other stakeholders providing official comments to the Corps on the Agency’s updated levee vegetation variance process. The Corps’ variance process – as well as the underlying levee vegetation removal policy – remains highly controversial due to concerns regarding various cost and compliance issues.
On a related matter, during the House Appropriations Committee’s consideration of its E&W spending measure, the panel adopted on a 29-20 vote an amendment that would bar the use of funds for the Corps to finalize guidance that would modify the definition of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued joint guidance last year that would significantly expand the scope of the CWA to give the Agencies authority to regulate additional waters. The guidance is currently under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Notably, the House fiscal year 2012 E&W spending bill included a similar CWA rider. The provision, however, was stripped from the final fiscal year 2012 omnibus budget package.