Update from Washington, D.C.
Congress Returns from Two-Week Spring Break to Face Crowded Legislative Agenda
May 2, 2019
Following a two-week congressional recess, lawmakers returned to the nation’s capital on Monday to face a packed spring agenda. Among a host of important issues, House and Senate leaders are looking to make progress on a stalled disaster supplemental, a new White House request for emergency humanitarian assistance at the border, and a long sought after, yet elusive, infrastructure package.
While negotiations continued this week on a broad disaster-aid package for communities hit hard by recent storms, floods, and wildfires, House and Senate leaders have been unable to strike a bipartisan deal. Among other tissues, aid to Puerto Rico remains a key sticking point between congressional Democrats and President Trump.
In an effort to break the logjam, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) recently put forward a new plan that would provide an additional $300 million for Puerto Rico in the form of Community Development Block Grant assistance. This would be in addition to the $600 million that was already included for the island’s food stamp program. In the meantime, the House will consider an even more robust disaster relief package sometime next week.
In addition to disaster aid, the Trump administration has called on Congress to provide $4.5 billion in emergency supplemental funding to deal with the humanitarian crisis along the southern border. Specifically, the request includes $3.3 billion for humanitarian assistance, $1.1 billion for operations support and personnel, and $178 million for technology upgrades and law enforcement pay adjustments. It should be noted that the request does not include any funds for border fencing. While Democrats have generally been skeptical of the administration’s positions on immigration, key appropriators are willing to work with the president to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security has the necessary funding to deal with a potential surge in migration.
In other developments this week, President Trump hosted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) at the White House for a discussion on infrastructure. The 90-minute meeting yielded an agreement in principle to spend $2 trillion on a broad infrastructure package. While the two sides were able to concur on a top-line funding number, they did not resolve how to raise the revenue for the ambitious new investment. Looking ahead, the president and Democratic congressional leaders have agreed to meet again in several weeks to discuss revenue-raising options.
House Appropriators Begin FY 2020 Spending Talks
This week, House appropriators formally kicked off their spending talks for the fiscal year that begins on October 1. Despite failing to agree on new discretionary funding levels, three Appropriations subcommittees this week approved their respective fiscal year 2020 spending bills – namely, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon); Legislative Branch; and, Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education.
The MilCon bill, which would provide over $108 billion in discretionary funding, is approximately $10 billion more than current levels. This total includes $921 million in Overseas Contingency Operations funds, which would not count against current top-line budget caps. Notably, the legislation includes a policy rider that would bar the use of funds appropriated between fiscal year 2015 and 2020 for any kind of barrier along the southern border. This funding prohibition is a direct rebuke of President Trump’s plan to reprogram military construction funds without congressional approval in order to build more fencing along the border. While this particular bill has generally steered clear of controversial provisions in the past, the policy rider could bog down negotiations later in the year.
The Labor-HHS spending bill, which was approved in subcommittee on a voice vote, would appropriate nearly $190 billion in discretionary funding. This would amount to an increase of $11.7 billion over the fiscal year 2019 enacted levels and $47.8 billion more than the president’s budget request.
Looking ahead, all three bills are expected to receive full committee consideration in the coming weeks. Committee leaders are aiming to complete action on all 12 of the annual spending measures by late May, with the goal of marshaling the bills through the House by the end of June.
Across Capitol Hill, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has indicated that he will not introduce any funding measure until House and Senate leaders come to an agreement on topline spending levels. Once a deal is in place, Shelby intends to bundle a few bills at a time to expedite their passage.
House Committee Approves Bill Overturning Carcieri v. Salazar
On May 1, the House Committee on Natural Resources approved legislation that would reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri v. Salazar decision. Championed by Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), the so-called “clean Carcieri fix” (HR 375) passed the committee on a 29 to seven vote. The “no” votes were cast by Republican members of the panel, including several who wanted to see gaming prohibitions included in the legislation.
In Carcieri, the Supreme Court determined that the secretary of the Interior’s trust land acquisition authority is limited to those tribes that were “under federal jurisdiction” at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. The effect of the landmark ruling was the creation of two classes of Indian tribes: those that can have land taken into trust on their behalf by the U.S. Department of the Interior (pre-1934 tribes) and those that cannot (post-1934 tribes).
Since the Court’s decision, many Indian tribes have demanded that Congress pass a clean Carcieri fix, which would simply reverse the now decade-old ruling. In contrast, county governments – led by CSAC – have urged lawmakers to include comprehensive legislative reforms in the Interior Department’s deeply flawed fee-to-trust process as part of any legislation that addresses Carcieri.
During consideration of HR 375, the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), entered into the record correspondence sent by CSAC to committee leaders. Along with laying out the rationale for overhauling the Interior Department’s trust-acquisition process, the CSAC letter includes the association’s comprehensive fee-to-trust reform package. As part of his remarks, Congressman Bishop highlighted CSAC’s call for counties to have a seat at the fee-to-trust table while pointing out that HR 375 fails to accomplish this objective. Similarly, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) noted that there is a need to codify standards that provide counties with a meaningful opportunity to engage in good-faith consultations within the context of trust-land decisions.
Looking ahead, Democratic congressional leaders are expected to continue their efforts aimed at moving a clean Carcieri fix through the House on behalf of tribal interests. For its part, CSAC will continue to work with key members of Congress and other stakeholders to generate support for comprehensive reforms in the fee-to-trust process.
Finally, it should be noted that if HR 375 ultimately makes its way to the upper chamber, the bill is expected to face significant resistance from key senators. In past years, Senate opposition has thwarted Carcieri clean fix bills, with various senators echoing CSAC’s calls for the inclusion of provisions that would overhaul the fee-to-trust process. Additionally, a number of senators have attempted to include as part of previous Carcieri legislation controversial amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).
VA Committee Hears Testimony on Improving Veterans Access to Cannabis
On April 30, the House Veterans Affairs (VA) Committee’s Subcommittee on Health held a legislative hearing to discuss three bills concerning veterans’ access to medical cannabis. The meeting, which featured testimony from lawmakers, Trump administration officials, and several veterans groups, provided an opportunity for the invited witnesses to share their views on the pending legislative proposals.
The first bill – the Veterans Equal Access Act (HR 1647) – would allow VA doctors to provide veterans with recommendations and opinions regarding participation in their state’s cannabis programs. Another measure – the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (HR 712) – would require the VA to conduct clinical trials on the potential benefits of cannabis for veterans suffering from conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. Finally, the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act (HR 2191) would protect veterans from losing their VA benefits due to cannabis use in legal states. Similar to HR 1647, the bill would also change existing VA rules so that doctors would be able to fill out forms allowing veterans to obtain medical cannabis.
Despite widespread support from veterans advocacy groups, VA officials testified in opposition to all three bills. For starters, the Department cannot endorse the Veterans Equal Access Act because the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has issued guidance that would explicitly prohibit VA doctors from recommending a controlled substance to a patient. With regard to HR 712, the Trump administration believes that the legislation is too ambitious and instead urged lawmakers to pursue a smaller, early-phase trial design to study the benefits and risks regarding cannabis use.
Lastly, current VA administrative policy already states that veterans will not lose their benefits for using cannabis or discussing its usage with a VA health care provider. Therefore, the administration does not believe that HR 2191 is necessary. However, supporters of the bill contend that the legislation is needed to codify the current policy into law so that a future administration could not reverse it.
Looking ahead, the full committee is expected to bring all three bills up for consideration in the coming weeks, with potential floor action slated for later this year.