Update from Washington, D.C. 05/24/2013
With the Memorial Day recess quickly approaching, both chambers
of Congress headed into the week of May 20 with busy legislative
to-do lists. Following Monday’s devastating tornado in the
suburbs of Oklahoma City, however, lawmakers diverted some of
their time and attention to the question of financing disaster
recovery efforts. Shortly after the tragedy, which claimed 24
lives and likely caused upwards of $2 billion in damage,
President Barack Obama issued a major disaster declaration, a
step that will increase the speed and flow of federal
The Senate this week began consideration of a major Farm Bill reauthorization package. The legislation (S 954), which was approved by the Agriculture Committee on May 14, would reauthorize for five years a broad range of agricultural and food assistance programs. Overall, the $955 billion bill would provide $18 billion in deficit reduction over the next decade, with another $7 billion in savings expected as a result of sequestration. The savings are, in large part, achieved by ending direct payments and other subsidies to farmers and by reducing spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or CalFresh, as it is known in California.
Across Capitol Hill, the House Agriculture Committee approved its own five-year Farm Bill reauthorization measure (HR 1947) on May 15. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the legislation would reduce the deficit by nearly $40 billion over 10 years, with the extra savings coming from deeper cuts to the SNAP program. The package will likely be considered by the full House in June.
For its part, the Obama administration on May 20 issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) indicating support for S 954. It also encouraged the Senate to pursue deeper cuts to farm subsidy programs. While the Statement expressed the administration’s support for SNAP, as a program, it did not reveal the president’s position on the cuts included in the Senate bill. The White House has, however, openly criticized the level of SNAP cuts endorsed by House Republicans.
In other news, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved on May 22 a sweeping immigration reform bill (S 744). The panel cleared the legislation on a 13-5 vote after five days of debate in which members considered nearly 200 amendments. Three Republican members joined all 10 Democrats in voting for the measure, which includes a pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants, an expanded visa program for high-tech workers along with a new program for lower-skilled workers, and provisions aimed at strengthening the border.
As reported in a previous edition of the Legislative Bulletin, the committee approved on May 9 an amendment that would reauthorize the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) at $950 million through fiscal year 2015. The amendment, sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), also would allow jurisdictions to be reimbursed for the costs of housing undocumented individuals who are accused of certain crimes – and not only convicted of such offenses, as is allowed for under current law. The change would correct a long-standing flaw in federal statute that disadvantages county governments, which often spend a considerable amount of financial resources housing pretrial offenders who may not ultimately be convicted of the crimes for which they are accused.
The Feinstein amendment also includes language drafted by CSAC that would require the Department of Justice (DOJ) to compensate jurisdictions for the costs of incarcerating inmates who are determined to be of “unknown” immigration status. Unknown inmates are classified as such because they have not had prior contact with federal immigration authorities and therefore are not included in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database.
The intent of the amendment language is to preclude DOJ from unilaterally instituting a policy that would eliminate payments for unknowns. Last year, DOJ attempted to implement such a policy, which would have reduced California’s counties’ SCAAP allocations by roughly 50 percent. After substantial political pressure from CSAC – and with the strong support of the California congressional delegation – DOJ agreed to temporarily defer the policy change.
Looking ahead, the full Senate will likely begin debate on the immigration package once members complete action on the chamber’s Farm Bill reauthorization measure. Members are hoping to conclude work on the immigration measure before the July 4 recess.
Meanwhile, in the House, a group of bipartisan negotiators announced May 23 that they again have come to a tentative agreement on a comprehensive immigration overhaul. The announcement appears to put reform efforts in the lower chamber back on track, for now, after a previously announced tentative deal was temporarily shelved due to disagreements over how and whether immigrants waiting to become citizens should receive health care benefits.
According to House negotiators, the deal would not allow provisional citizens to be eligible for Medicaid; likewise, they would not be eligible to receive taxpayer subsidies to join health insurance exchanges. Consistent with current law, which ensures that all individuals can receive medical care in an emergency, provisional citizens would be eligible to receive emergency medical care as long as they pay for the cost of the services. Provisional citizens also would be required to provide their own insurance coverage on penalty of deportation.
With regard to fiscal year 2014 spending, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) recently released the spending allocations for each of the 12 subcommittees. The GOP spending plan, which was endorsed by the committee on May 21, would abide by the $967 billion spending cap set by the Budget Control Act (BCA), which is down from $1.043 trillion in fiscal year 2013. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), on the other hand, is expected to support a higher cap of $1.058 trillion.
Wasting little time, House appropriators approved a draft DHS spending bill, as well as draft legislation that would fund Military Construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs in fiscal year 2014. With regard to the DHS measure, the bill includes $38.9 billion in discretionary funding for the Department and the programs it oversees. While this is $35 million below the administration’s request, it is about $981 million above the current post-sequestration level. In addition, the bill includes $1.5 billion for state and local grant programs, $675 for Assistance to Firefighter Grants, and $350 million for Emergency Management Performance Grants.
Finally, the Senate last week put the finishing touches on its $12.2 billion Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization bill. The legislation (S 601), which cleared the upper chamber on an 83-14 vote, would authorize a variety of water resources projects that fall under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), including port, levee, drinking water, dams, and environmental restoration projects.
Among other things, S 601 includes a section that would require the secretary of the Army to conduct a comprehensive review of the Corps’ levee vegetation removal policy. In conducting the review, the secretary would need to consult with other entities, including representatives of state and local governments, federal agencies, and appropriate nongovernmental agencies. The section of the bill is strongly supported by CSAC.
The section also would require the secretary to consider whether the Corps’ policy can be amended to promote and allow for consideration of variances on a statewide, tribal, regional or watershed basis. The bill would require the secretary to base variances on such factors as: soil conditions, hydrologic factors, vegetation patterns and characteristics, environmental resources, levee performance history, any scientific link between vegetation and levee safety, the availability of limited funds for levee construction and rehabilitation, etc.
The legislation also would require the secretary to solicit and consider the views of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences as part of the policy review process.
S 601 also would create a new Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program. Under the program, $50 million would be authorized annually over five years to the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to offer low-interest loans and loan guarantees for water infrastructure projects expected to cost at least $20 million; for water systems serving 25,000 people or fewer, the bill would authorize $5 million per project.
It should be noted that WIFIA is modeled after the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), which was authorized back in 1998 under a previous surface transportation law (TEA-21). According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, each federal dollar that is put into the TIFIA program can leverage $10 worth of project loans.
In addition, the Senate WRDA bill includes provisions designed to accelerate the completion of water infrastructure projects, including provisions that would streamline the Corps’ environmental review process. Among other things, the bill would make the Corps the lead agency for the environmental review process and would fine other federal resources agencies that miss prescribed deadlines.
The action on WRDA now shifts to the House, where the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Water Resources and the Environment Subcommittee has held both an informal roundtable and an official hearing on WRDA. The subcommittee will be holding a hearing in early June to review Army Corps Chief’s reports, and may hold an additional WRDA hearing in the near future.