Update from Washington, D.C. 05/25/2012
The House of Representatives was on recess the week of May 21st
and is set to return after the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. The
Senate, on the other hand, was in session this week and will be
out all of the following week.
Before departing the nation’s capital, House appropriators were able to advance several fiscal year 2013 spending bills at the committee level, including measures that would fund the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, Military-Veterans, and State-Foreign Operations. For its part, the Senate Appropriations Committee also approved its Homeland Security and Military-Veterans measures. Despite a flurry of activity in the last two weeks, Congress is unlikely to clear many, or perhaps any, stand-alone appropriations bills this year, and will likely have to resort to combining several bills into an omnibus measure.
In other developments, the House and Senate approved legislation (HR 2072) that would reauthorize and increase funds for the Export-Import Bank. The Bank, which provides direct loans, credit financing, and loan guarantees to back the purchase of U.S.-made goods and services overseas, came under attack this year from conservatives who argued that it was a form of corporate welfare. Nonetheless, the legislation was overwhelmingly approved by both chambers and has been presented to President Obama.
The Senate also considered legislation (S 3187) this week that would reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority to collect user fees from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. The bill is relatively noncontroversial, but efforts to advance the measure were stymied by lawmakers looking to offer contentious amendments and attach unrelated policy riders to the underlying legislation. Senate leaders were able to strike a deal, however, on a defined list of amendments that would receive floor consideration. The final agreement also involved cutting deals to separately consider measures to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and to maintain the interest rate for federal student loans (S 2343).
Notably, the current NFIP extension (PL 112-74) expires on May 31, so lawmakers are expected to move another stopgap measure in short order. The Senate on Thursday voted to extend the program for 60 days, while the House last week approved a one-month extension. The two chambers will have to decide on a common approach before the insurance provider’s charter expires.
On the transportation front, negotiators have just completed their third week of deliberations on a final reauthorization package. With the House and Senate on separate schedules, conferees are counting on their staffs to wade through the noncontroversial titles of the bill. Overall, congressional leaders are pleased with the progress made to this point and, for the most part, are optimistic that the committee will be able to produce a conference report before the current stopgap measure expires on June 30.
The administration recently weighed in on the discussions, sending a letter to the conference committee outlining its positions on various issues. Notably, the letter restates an earlier White House veto threat should the final package include the House-passed provisions on the Keystone XL Pipeline. The letter further expresses strong disapproval with some of the streamlining provisions included in the House-passed bill, including provisions that would mandate a strict deadline for completion of environmental and judicial reviews.
In other news, Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) introduced
legislation (HR 5831) on May 18th that would require the
Secretary of the Army to undertake a comprehensive review of the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) policy guidelines on
vegetation management for levees. The bipartisan bill, entitled
the Levee Vegetation Review Act, is cosponsored by 30 members of
the California congressional delegation.
The Corps’ levee vegetation policy requires local agencies to remove woody vegetation from their levee systems. Ostensibly, the policy – which the Corps began enforcing more rigorously in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – is intended to reduce any potential weakening of or damage to levees from root growth and overturned trees. Although the Corps does have a “variance” process that allows levee sponsors to request that vegetation remain on levees, California’s local flood agencies have determined that the procedure is unworkable and does not provide sufficient flexibility. Furthermore, according to recent estimates, the per-levee-mile cost to apply for a variance is a significant financial hurdle for local agencies.
Under HR 5831, 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.
Additionally, and among other things, the legislation would require the secretary to solicit and consider the views of the National Academy of Engineering as part of the comprehensive review process. Notably, the Corps’ own Engineer Research and Development Center recently completed an initial research effort on the effects of woody vegetation on levees which indicated that minimal data exists on the scientific relationship between woody vegetation and levees.
Finally, earlier this week, the Bureau of Justice Assistance
(BJA) announced the opening of the fiscal year 2012 application
process for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP).
Jurisdictions must submit their funding applications by July 6,
Since 1996, BJA has provided partial reimbursement to states and counties for the costs of incarcerating undocumented criminal offenders. Under agency protocols, jurisdictions have received variable reimbursement for those inmates whose statuses are both “known” and “unknown” to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
It should be noted that BJA announced that beginning with this funding cycle it will be discontinuing payments for those inmates who are classified as “unknown.” According to BJA, the previous practice was a recognition that some of the “unknown” inmates could have been undocumented if they had entered the United States illegally and never came into contact with DHS. In justifying its reimbursement criteria change, BJA has indicated that the new practice will make better use of limited SCAAP funding and will ensure that jurisdictions are reimbursed only for known undocumented criminals.
At this point, it is unclear how the change will impact each state and individual jurisdiction. However, it is believed that California’s counties will generally be heavily impacted by the new reimbursement criteria.