Update From Washington, D.C.
Senate Set to Begin Consideration of $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Package; Congress Set to Bring Back Earmarks; Bipartisan Legislation Introduced to Improve Resiliency of Communications Networks; House Democrats Introduce Sweeping Climate Legislation
Senate Set to Begin Consideration of $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Package
The Senate is expected to begin debate today on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. No Republican has indicated support for the legislation, so Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote from their caucus for the bill to pass. In a move to solidify the support of moderate Democrats and to address some of their concerns, several notable concessions were made to the House-passed version of the rescue plan (HR 1319).
For starters, a proposed minimum wage increase was stripped from the bill after the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that it did not qualify for the fast-track budget rules. A select group of Democrats also convinced party leaders to impose stricter income limits on who can receive the proposed $1,400 stimulus checks. Individuals earning over $80,000 now would not qualify for the direct payments, compared with a $100,000 cap in the House-passed legislation. The ceiling for couples will now be $160,000, down from the initial cap of $200,000.
The Senate version of the legislation also would make several notable changes to provisions of the House-passed Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, including reducing the overall amount of federal fiscal aid to local governments. Under the Senate bill, counties and cities would split $120.2 billion, or $10 billion less than the amount approved by the House. The funding would remain available through December 31, 2024, and could be used to cover costs incurred for the following purposes:
- to respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits or to aid impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality;
- for the provision of government services to the extent there was a reduction in revenue due to the health emergency; and,
- to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
Under the Senate bill, funding would be broken into two equal tranches, with the first installment allocated within 60 days of the bill’s passage. The second tranche of funding would be allocated one year later.
It should be noted that the $10 billion cut from the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund would be set aside for a new Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to carry out capital projects “directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options, in response to the public health emergency.” While states, territories, and tribal governments would be eligible for the new program, the funding would not be available to counties and cities.
Once the legislation is ready for consideration, Senate rules provide for 20 hours of debate, equally divided between the two parties. The process could stretch on even longer as Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is expected to demand that the legislation be read in its entirety. While lawmakers from both parties will be permitted to introduce amendments to the measure, Democrats have been instructed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) not to seek any substantive changes to the bill. However, this will not prevent GOP lawmakers from forcing politically difficult votes. Following this so-called Vote-a-Rama – in which there’s no numerical limit to how many amendments can receive a floor vote – the chamber will vote on final passage, which will only require a simple majority.
If and when the legislation is approved, it will be sent back to the House for a final vote. For their part, Democrats are still on pace to have the legislation on the president’s desk prior to March 14, when existing supplemental unemployment aid expires.
House Advances Sweeping Election/Policing Reform Legislation
With the Senate focused on the COVID-19 relief measure, the House turned its attention to other Democratic priorities. On Wednesday, lawmakers voted along party lines to approve legislation – For the People Act of 2021 (HR 1) – that would make sweeping changes to the nation’s campaign finance, voting rights, and government ethics laws. Among other things, HR 1 would establish automatic voter registration nationwide, require paper ballots in all jurisdictions, create an optional public financing system to pay for congressional campaigns, tighten disclosure rules for political groups and super PACs, restructure the Federal Election Commission, require early voting and expand voting by mail, and support nonpartisan redistricting efforts.
House Democrats also advanced policing reform legislation (HR 1280) designed to prevent the excessive use of force by police officers. The legislation, entitled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases. Additionally, the bill would change “qualified immunity,” which, pursuant to current doctrine, shields law enforcement officers from being held personally liable for constitutional violations as long as an officer does not willfully violate “clearly established” laws. Under HR 1280, a litigant could receive damages in civil court if it is determined that a police officer violated the individual’s constitutional rights with knowing or reckless disregard.
There are a number of other reforms in the measure that would impact local law enforcement agencies, including provisions that would require local governing bodies to make a series of certifications and meet specified requirements in order to remain eligible for certain federal grant programs, namely Byrne-JAG and COPS hiring grants. The measure would also eliminate the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
Both of the aforementioned bills were approved by the House in the previous Congress but stalled in the Senate. In the absence of a bipartisan, bicameral compromise, it appears likely that neither measure will advance in the upper chamber, where 60 votes are required for passage under traditional rules.
Congress Set to Bring Back Earmarks
In a long-anticipated move, House Democrats recently announced that the Appropriations Committee will be accepting Member requests for earmarked projects. It should be noted that the practice of earmarking federal funds was banned by Congress in 2011 due in large part to concerns that it led to frivolous spending. Per guidance released by the House Appropriations Committee, earmarks are being rebranded as “Community Project Funding.” Committee leaders also are instituting a number of reforms to the previous earmarking process, including banning for-profit recipients and capping the total number of project requests that House Members may submit.
Looking ahead, the committee will be providing additional information regarding which agency accounts and programs will be eligible for Community Project Funding requests. It should be noted that House Republican leaders have yet to decide whether they will modify internal party rules to allow members of their conference to participate in the process. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Appropriations Committee Democrats have indicated that they also intend to restore earmarks, though no official announcement has yet been made.
In addition to individual appropriations measures, congressional Democrats are expected to allow Members to seek earmarks as part of other bills. In fact, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) recently announced that the panel will provide an opportunity for members to submit requests to the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization measure. Additional information on the T&I earmark proposal, including submission requirements, can be found here.
Bipartisan Legislation Introduced to Improve Resiliency of Communications Networks
Representatives Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) recently reintroduced bipartisan legislation – the Emergency Reporting Act (HR 1250) – that would improve the resiliency of communications networks during emergencies. In particular, the bill aims to improve the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS), which is a voluntary, web-based system used to collect communications infrastructure status and situational awareness information during a disaster. The measure includes a number of new reporting requirements following a disaster to determine the effectiveness of the system. It also would require the FCC to hold at least one public field hearing in the affected community. Following this information-gathering phase, the FCC would issue a final report that includes policy recommendations that would make communities more resilient.
In addition, the Emergency Reporting Act would improve standards that require mobile carriers to report network outages to 9-1-1 centers. While outage reporting requirements exist at the FCC, the notification threshold is high and can lead to situations in which 9-1-1 centers are left in the dark about service outages. HR 1250 would require comprehensive reporting on network outages after disasters and seeks to improve information sharing between wireless companies and 9-1-1 dispatchers. The new reporting requirements would ensure that the weak spots in the nation’s communications networks are addressed before future emergencies, and information sharing would alert 9-1-1 operators when calls are no longer reaching their stations.
House Democrats Introduce Sweeping Climate Legislation
On March 3, Democratic leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced a broad climate bill (HR 1512) that seeks to dramatically cut greenhouse gas pollution across every major sector of the economy. Specifically, the legislation – entitled the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act – seeks to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (from 2005 levels) by no later than 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. HR 1512 presents both sector-specific and economy-wide solutions to meet the new targets. A fact sheet summarizing the legislation is available here and a one-pager can be accessed here.