WASHINGTON LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: OMNIBUS SPENDING BILL, TAX EXTENDERS, INTERIOR IMPROVEMENT ACT
Congress Passes $1.8 Trillion Spending Measure
After much debate and wrangling and some say a beaten down Congress on Friday December 18th, 2015 passed a $1.8 trillion package of spending and tax cuts with little rancor. Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) had promised there would be no shutdown or default this year. And was quoted as saying “By any objective standard, I think, the Senate is back to work”. Speaker Ryan was credited with winning a majority of Republicans votes for the huge spending and tax package, although House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) insisted that Republicans came on Board only because of a recently added provision to end a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. And, at a recent news conference President Obama said, “we’ve gotten kind of used to last-minute crises and shutdown threats and so forth…this is a messy process that doesn’t satisfy everybody completely, but it’s more typical of American democracy. And I think that Speaker Ryan deserves a role in that”.
Representative Tom Cole (R-Ok) managed much of the floor debate for Republicans and said that all lawmakers could find items to support or oppose in such a huge spending and tax-break package. As an end result, the period of belt-tightening ended in Washington the spending measure for 2016 provides a $66 billion increase in Federal outlays above previously agreed-upon limits, divided equally between military and nonmilitary programs. The White House and congressional Democrats said they had thwarted the Republicans’ main policy goals, including efforts to cut off government financing for Planned Parenthood and put restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugees, while securing a number of their own priorities, including tax benefits for working Americans and to promote renewable energy. And Speaker Ryan, who was the former Chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee pushed through the major tax-break package that many Democrats opposed.
The House approved the Tax Breaks on Thursday Dec. 17th and the spending measure on Friday with a vote of 316 to 113, with 150 Republicans and 166 Democrats supporting the bill. The Senate then voted to end the debate on the overall legislation, dispensed with several procedural steps, and approved the package, 65 to 33.
Spending Bill provisions impacting Tribal Programs:
- For the Indian Health Service (IHS), the omnibus provides a total appropriation of $4.8 billion, a 3.6% increase over FY 2015 levels. This includes flat funding at $914 million for Purchased/Referred Care (formerly Contract Health Services) and $523 for Facilities, a $63 million increase. It also provides an additional $10 million to alcohol and substance abuse for a focus on Tribal youth, and an increase of $12.9 million for staffing.
- The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is funded at a total of $2.8 billion, a 7.5% increase over FY 2015 enacted. This includes $2.26 billion for the Operation of Indian Programs, a $161 million reduction compared to FY 2015, as well as $852 million for the Bureau of Indian Education. Notably, the bill also contains $138 million for school construction, an increase of $63.7 million, which should complete the 2004 replacement school construction list.
- For Contract Support Costs (CSC) at both BIA and IHS, the omnibus creates an indefinite appropriation using the language, “such sums as may be necessary,” rather than specific amounts. Tribes and Tribal organizations advocated for the CSC line item to be made mandatory on a permanent, indefinite basis in order to stabilize funding, protect funding appropriated to other line items, and help to avoid funding shortfalls. Though the omnibus does not make CSC mandatory, providing for an indefinite appropriation will allow the agencies to pay CSC in full, as required by the Supreme Court decision in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, as well as protect other line items in the budget and avoid shortfalls.
- In addition to the omnibus, Congress also passed a $680 million package to extend a number of critical tax provisions that have been expired since the end of 2014. Each of these tax credits is designed to encourage increased investment in projects within Indian Country, as well as increased jobs for Native people and indicate that greater tax reform is around the corner. These include:
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Passes S. 1879,
the Interior Improvement Act
On Wednesday, December 2, 2015 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) passed the Interior Improvement Act, S. 1879 that was introduced by Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wy) in July of this year. The bill improves the Department of Interior’s trust land acquisition process by codifying and streamlining portions of the process, reaffirming the Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes and reaffirms the statutes of lands already taken into trust. The Chairman added manager’s amendments that were technical in nature and did not stray far for the original legislation. Assistant Secretary Washburn has supported the legislation saying at most it codifies existing practices at the department, and does not disrupt the current land into trust review and will expedite the process for many trust lands applications. This bill now sets the mark for legislation in the next Congress, and indicates that Congressional movement to fix the US Supreme Court Decision (Carcieri v. Salazar in 2009) is closer at hand.