Update from Washington, D.C.
Congress Looks to Tie Up Loose Ends Ahead of July 4 Break
June 28, 2019
With lawmakers scheduled to depart the nation’s capital for the Independence Day recess, House and Senate leaders were looking to tie up a number of loose ends this week. For starters, the two chambers struggled to complete a long-stalled border-aid package. Despite repeated warnings from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which could run out of funding in the coming days, congressional leaders have been unable to unite behind a proposal to provide emergency federal assistance at the southern border.
For its part, the Senate on June 26 approved a bipartisan humanitarian aid bill (S 1900) that included nearly $4.6 billion in supplemental funding to deal with the influx of migrants at the border. One day earlier, the House voted largely along party lines to advance its own $4.5 billion proposal (HR 3401). While the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus initially balked at the legislation, the measure was amended to address their concerns, which included placing restrictions on how the White House could use the funding. The bill also includes language that would require the administration to replace contractors that do not meet the legal standards of care for unaccompanied children.
As of this writing, negotiations between House Democrats, Senate GOP leaders, and administration officials are ongoing. Despite a desire to finalize a deal this week, it is unclear if lawmakers will be able to coalesce around a single proposal prior to the holiday break.
House Continues to Make Progress on FY 2020 Spending Bills
In addition to the emergency supplemental, and despite the continued absence of a new budget agreement, the House this week approved a second multi-bill spending package, or minibus. The legislation (HR 3055), which includes over $383 billion in discretionary budget authority, combines five fiscal year 2020 appropriations measures, including those covering Agriculture-Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Commerce-Justice-Science, Interior-Environment, Transportation-Housing and Urban Development, and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (VA).
The lower chamber also approved its fiscal year 2020 Financial Services and General Government spending bill (HR 3351). The legislation, which funds the Department of the Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service, as well as a number of other agencies, would provide nearly $24.6 billion in discretionary funding. This would amount to an increase of $1.4 billion over the fiscal year 2019 enacted level and almost $356 million more than the president’s budget request. Following its approval, House Democrats have now advanced ten (of 12) funding measures. Action on the final two bills – Homeland Security and Legislative Branch – will likely occur in July. While the House fell short of its goal to move all 12 bills by the end of June, it remains well ahead of the Senate, which has yet to unveil a single spending bill.
It should be noted that the Trump administration has threatened to veto both HR 3055 and HR 3351. While there are a variety of reasons behind the veto threat, the administration is strongly opposed to the increases in domestic discretionary spending that would be provided under the legislation.
Cannabis Riders Included in House Spending Bills
The House Financial Services spending bill includes a policy rider that would safeguard banks that serve cannabis businesses. Specifically, the language would prohibit the use of funds to penalize a financial institution that provides services to a cannabis grower, dispensary, or business operating under a state-approved program.
In addition, the aforementioned minibus initially included language that would shield state-legal medical cannabis consumers and businesses from federal enforcement efforts. The so-called Rohrabacher-Farr (or Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) appropriations rider has been in place since fiscal year 2015. However, the chamber voted for the first time to extend these same protections to adult use. The bipartisan amendment, offered by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Tom McClintock (R-CA), was approved by a vote of 267 to 165.
It should be noted that the minibus was also amended to protect tribal cannabis laws from federal interference. In addition, the Agriculture title of the bill includes a provision that would direct the FDA to develop regulations providing for the lawful marketing of cannabidiol (CBD) products. Another amendment that would have allowed VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to patients in states where it’s legal was withdrawn from consideration after department officials raised new concerns.
Interior Department Releases Fiscal Year 2019 PILT Payments
On June 20, the Department of the Interior announced that it would distribute $514.7 million to over 1,900 local governments under the Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) program. In all, 57 California counties are in line to receive over $51.7 million this year, down from the record $60.5 million disbursement in fiscal year 2018.
It should be noted that the drop in payments was expected and is in line with previous PILT funding levels. The statutory formula takes into consideration other Federal land payments – mineral leasing revenue, livestock grazing, timber harvesting receipts, and Secure Rural Schools (SRS) payments – received by a county in the preceding year. Therefore, a lapse in SRS funding combined with a record PILT allocation resulted in a significant, albeit temporary, boost in funding, particularly for those counties with National Forest Service land.
A breakdown of funding by county can be accessed here.
Election Security Bill
As of this writing, the House is currently debating legislation – the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (HR 2722) – that would require states to ensure the security and accuracy of their voting systems. The measure, which the House Administration Committee approved along party lines on June 21, would authorize $600 million in fiscal year 2019 and $175 million in even-numbered years through fiscal year 2026 for Election Assistance Commission grants to support state and local efforts aimed at improving and securing election infrastructure. It also would require voting systems to have voter-verified paper ballots so that election results can be audited.
Similar to the committee action, votes on HR 2722 are expected to fall along party lines. For their part, Republicans do not believe additional funding should be provided ahead of the 2020 elections, countering that Congress already approved $380 million in fiscal year 2018 to help upgrade voting systems. GOP leaders are also generally opposed to federal mandates for voting systems, arguing that elections should be administered at the state and local level.
Senate Set to Clear TANF Extension
Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) has released his hold on Senate consideration of legislation (HR 2940) that would provide a short-term extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF/CalWORKs) program. Pursuant to HR 2940, the program’s authorization, which was set to expire at the end of the month, would be extended through September 30. The upper chamber is expected to approve the measure before departing for the July Fourth break.
Trump Directs HHS to Initiate Health Care Transparency Efforts
On June 24, President Trump signed an executive order that directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to begin identifying potential administrative actions to improve price and quality transparency in health care. While the order does not spell out specific actions, it does direct HHS officials to develop policies that would require hospitals to disclose the costs of procedures. It also would require health care providers and insurers to provide patients with upfront information about out-of-pocket costs they may incur before receiving treatment. HHS will now undergo a lengthy rulemaking process to achieve these initiatives.
The Executive Order can be viewed here.