Washington Bulletin 6/19

June 20, 2017
Washington Update

On Capitol Hill

Congressman Scalise Still Critical, Improving After Shooting

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) remains in critical condition after being shot Wednesday morning, June 14, practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. A congressional staff member, two Capitol Police officers and a former congressional-staffer were also wounded in the early morning attack at the ballpark in Alexandria, Virginia. The gunman was identified as 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. He died later from injuries sustained in a shootout with police.

While he remains hospitalized, Scalise’s condition has been downgraded from critical to serious. President Trump and the First Lady visited the hospital Wednesday night, and Vice President Mike Pence visited the hospital Thursday morning. And, the House passed a resolution by voice vote on Thursday expressing “gratitude for the heroic actions” of police officers at the scene of the shooting and “hope for a speedy and full recovery for the injured.”

The House Republican baseball team had been practicing for weeks for the annual congressional baseball game against Democratic lawmakers’ team. The congressional game has been one of Washington’s greatest shows of bipartisanship and camaraderie since 1919 and was played as scheduled Thursday evening, June 15.

 

Possible Budget Deal Could Ease GOP Passage of Spending Bills

As of last Friday, June 16th, a potential deal between House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and restive conservatives could change the dynamic on this year’s appropriations bills. If the plan is successful, Republicans in the House could for the first time in years be able to pass spending bills without the help of Democrats, thereby reducing the leverage of the minority.

House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) presented the conservative Freedom Caucus with a proposal that would increase fiscal year 2018 defense spending above the $603 billion level in President Donald Trump’s budget, while keeping non-defense spending close to the current level, according to Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) and other members of the caucus.

In exchange, House leadership would have to agree to highly specific budget reconciliation instructions that would compel authorizing committees to cut mandatory spending, such as food stamps and welfare, over the course of a decade. Non-defense spending would be at the $516 billion Budget Control Act level, a $3 billion reduction from the level in fiscal 2017

Freedom Caucus member Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) in an interview June 16 said lawmakers haven’t reached a deal yet because the level of entitlement savings leadership is proposing is still too small. The Freedom Caucus has been seeking $400 billion to $500 billion in savings.

Because of on-going negotiations, a committee markup of the budget next week, originally planned for Wednesday, June 21, is now doubtful. Though if conservatives sign off on these budget levels, appropriators could get to work passing 12 annual spending bills without having to rely on House Democrats.

There remains obstacles to getting these spending bills to the president’s desk, as Senate Democrats would have leverage on the spending bills because Republicans lack the 60 votes required in that chamber to pass spending bills.

 

House Appropriations Committee Approves Military Construction and Veterans Affairs FY 2018 Bill

The House Appropriations Committee approved the first of 12 fiscal year 2018 spending bills, clearing it for possible floor action before the July 4 recess.

The $88.8 billion Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA) bill left full-committee consideration with a healthy $6 billion increase, even though Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) is working with the Budget Control Act’s (BCA) discretionary spending cap that cuts available funding by $5 billion next year.

The Milcon-VA bill was approved on voice vote, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the committee’s next steps are unclear. With no fiscal year 2018 budget resolution in sight and only an austere BCA cap to guide the committee, lawmakers said they will continue writing bills but can’t see them advancing to President Trump’s desk if they boost security programs at the expense of non-defense programs.

Appropriators are getting off to a late start on the 2018 bills because 2017 measures were held over into the new year to give President Trump more time to weigh in on spending matters. The fiscal year 2017 bills were only completed and passed in early May, and now the Appropriations Committee has less than four months before that funding runs out on September 30.

Without any budget resolution or agreement establishing a new allocation, Republicans brought up the Milcon-VA bill in full committee under an interim funding allocation. While both sides praised the Milcon-VA bill and signaled their support for it, Democrats strongly criticized a process that forced them to approve an allocation for one bill without knowing how much funding will be left over for the remaining 11 bills.

Appropriators Share Misgivings About Transportation Budget

Republican and Democratic Appropriators expressed misgivings about transportation cuts, air traffic control changes, and funding for the infrastructure plan included in the White House’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget during an Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing June 15.

Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee Chair Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he wants to preserve access for rural airports and rural passenger rail, both of which would face cuts under the administration’s plan, while recognizing the need to pass a “fiscally responsible” budget.

The Department of Transportation’s budget is reduced by 13 percent in the Administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, which also recommends setting aside $200 billion in new budget authority for a broader Trump Administration infrastructure initiative.

Among the projects facing cuts are grant programs popular in Congress such as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program and the capital investment grant program or New Starts, which supports transit capital investments.

In her testimony, Department of Transportation Secretary Chao noted she is aware of the popularity of TIGER grants, which she called “earmark-like” because they are project-specific in nature. “We would prefer [TIGER projects] would be done within the monies that are available, rather than have it siphoned aside for some specific purpose,” Secretary Chao told the committee.

 

Senate to Join House in Moving Appropriations Without Budget

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced June 15th that the Senate will use funding levels from last year to begin moving some of the 12 spending bills.

“We’re going to have to hopefully, sooner rather than later, agree with our Democratic colleagues on what the top line is, what we’re going to spend on the discretionary accounts this year. They will be a part of that, because that’s not something we can do Republicans only,” he stated. “In the meantime, we hope to move forward with some of the appropriations bills at last year’s levels, and then adjust them once we can reach a bipartisan agreement on how much we’re going to spend.”

Lawmakers don’t necessarily plan to use the exact sub-allocations from fiscal year 2017, a Senate Republican aide said. In the House, for example, the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (MilCon-VA) Appropriations bill shows a $6 billion increase to its allocation and the Senate may match that. Senate MilCon-VA subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) said he understands his subcommittee will be the first to mark up a bill. Though, he states that he has yet to see evidence of bipartisan talks on a budget level.

 

Senate Proposal to Change Budget Rules Gains More Support

Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the chamber’s top tax-writer, announced his support to change congressional budget rules which would relax time limits on tax cuts that increase the federal deficit. “It would be better” if the existing 10-year budget window were extended Senator Hatch said in an interview. The change would make it easier for the Republicans, which controls only 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, to enact longer-lasting tax cuts without any support from Democrats. Under current Senate rules, any legislation that passes with fewer than 60 votes can’t add to the deficit outside a 10-year budget window, otherwise the tax changes would have to expire.

Senator Hatch’s counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX), stated on June 15 that he’ll evaluate proposals to extend the budget window. But the Texas Republican said he remains committed to permanent tax reform that “balances within the 10-year budget timeline.”

 

Senate Stalls on Health-Care Bill

At a Senate Committee hearing last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told committee members he hasn’t seen Senate Republicans’ pending Obamacare repeal bill. HHS officials and senior staff have advised senators working on revising a House-passed repeal bill, but haven’t been given legislation yet. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) confirmed Price’s comment, when he publicly noted that he isn’t sure anybody knows the full details. “We’re working at it,” he said.

Last week President Trump attempted to push the Senate legislation forward, as he met with more than a dozen Republican senators to discuss a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Following the meeting, third-ranking Republican John Thune (R-SD) urged the GOP senators to work through their differences. The senator said President Trump didn’t state many policy preferences but said people with pre-existing conditions should be protected and spoke about making tax credits apply to lower-income people rather than allocated solely by age as the House bill did. “I think he realizes our bill is going to move probably from where the House is, and he seems fine with that,” Thune said.

Another wild card remains in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal effort. A new fiscal year 2018 budget can’t be adopted until the ACA has been disposed of without making it vulnerable to a filibuster in the Senate. That could also delay the markup of a budget resolution, which in turn could delay tax writers’ efforts to work on a tax code revamp, until they are assured of a filibuster-proof legislative vehicle.

 

Senate Judiciary Committee Readies Russia Probe

The bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee announced its investigation of President Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, as Senate Democrats believe the committee should look into possible obstruction of justice by the President. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), have been negotiating an agreement for the scope of their investigation.

Senator Feinstein announced last week that the panel needs to hear from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mr. Comey, as well as associates of Mr. Comey from his time as FBI chief. Chairman Senator Grassley declined to comment on whether they would subpoena Mr. Comey or others until he and Senator Feinstein finish working out the agreement.

A new investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee adds to the many other inquiries underway, notably special counsel Robert Mueller’s expanding Russia probe, which now appears to include questions about whether President Trump tried to obstruct justice.

 

House Rules Committee to Meet on Reclamation Water Storage Permits Bill

The Rules Committee said it would likely meet Thursday, June 22nd, to set the terms of floor debate on the Reclamation Water Storage Permits Bill, H.R. 1654.

Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA), the bill’s sponsor, said the measure would make it easier to build new reservoirs, which would help address water shortages in California and elsewhere.

Under the bill, water project sponsors could use an expedited permitting process in which the Bureau of Reclamation would be designated as the lead agency for coordinating the new review process. According to an April 24 markup memo from the Natural Resources Committee, the bill “codifies a ‘one-stop-shop’ permitting process to expedite construction of all new or expanded non-federal surface storage facilities.”

In the dissenting views section of the report from the Natural Resources Committee, nine Democrats wrote that the bill “would impose arbitrary deadlines for completing key environmental reviews for new water storage projects and create an ill-conceived new review process at odds with the existing review process established under key laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”

 

Self-Driving Car Bills Likely to Be Introduced Before August 

Legislation on self-driving cars could be formally introduced in both the House and Senate before the August recess.

“Ideally we’d like to have it done before we leave,” Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.) told reporters June14 after a hearing on the subject at the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. “I’m not going to give any firm time frame because we’re still working on it.”

Legislative principles released by Senator Peters, along with Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), are aimed at guiding their efforts to write bipartisan legislation on self-driving vehicles.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to unveil autonomous vehicle legislation by the end of the month and hold a committee markup. The House Energy and Commerce Committee circulated a proposal this spring that included 16 draft bills addressing autonomous vehicle issues—including provisions on cybersecurity, preemption of conflicting state laws, and expansion of federal vehicle safety standard exemptions to allow for new autonomous vehicle designs.

Self-driving car advocates have pressed the committee to retain voluntary standards for safety. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) developed voluntary guidelines for autonomous vehicles last fall and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently said her the agency is reviewing the guidelines and plans to update them in the coming months.

 

Administration

Trump Administration Discusses Drug Price Executive Order

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Center for Medicare & Medicaid Administrator Seema Verma, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin discussed options on drug pricing.

The recommendations from the officials may be used to craft a first executive order on drug prices that could come out soon, followed by a second, more extensive order later. While executive orders can’t change laws, President Trump could use the efforts to direct agencies to explore regulatory changes and set direction. One policy being discussed for inclusion in the order is expressing support for value-based agreements, a drug industry-backed proposal in which pharmaceutical companies and health insurers develop arrangements to pay for products depending on how well they work.

Separately, a group of Democratic senators introduced a bill, the Stop Price Gouging Act, to require pharmaceutical companies to report and justify increases in drug prices and “penalize drug companies that engage in unjustified price increases with financial penalties,” according to a statement.

 

Trump Administration Leaders Want Debt Ceiling Raised 

Last week, the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin separately announced that they would like to see the U.S. debt ceiling raised by August. This follows a similar request by President Trump.

Additionally, Secretary Mnuchin announced at a Senate Banking Committee hearing that the government would be able to pay its bills through September 2017. The Secretary further stated that, in his opinion, a government shutdown may not always be “an unfortunate outcome. At times there could be a good shutdown, and times there may not be a good shutdown.” Though he acknowledged that he would not prefer a government shutdown, his first objective was to raise the government’s debt limit.