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An Early Look at the First Year of the Trump Administration…

The forty-fifth president of the United States hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, placed prominently behind the president’s desk. The President has named Jackson as a model executive he hopes to emulate. The 45th President has been absolutely clear about several policy goals that, if fully implemented, will lead Indian tribes […]

via An Early Look at the First Year of the Trump Administration — Turtle Talk

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Happy New Year 2016

We want to wish everyone a very happy and prosperous new year, and hope to see you again in 2016 at conferences or here in Washington.  The Congress has been very busy at the end of this year and proud of the fact it accomplished the passage of major highway and education bills that had lingered on the congressional agenda for months, and also approved a tax break and spending package, avoiding a government shutdown.   Appears that Congress is working again.  As Speaker Ryan recently was quoted. “We passed more major legislation in a few weeks than we have in a few years.” See my other recent blog post for details of the recent legislation that broke the congressional deadlock. new years 2016

Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works asks for more Money for the Tribal Transportation Program

Tribal roads 4In a markup hearing this morning, the EPW unanimously approved the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act” (“DRIVE”). The bill proposes a six-year plan to address the transportation funding crisis and associated infrastructure shortfalls. Chairman Inhofe stated that the progression of the bill hinges on the elimination of red tape and redundancies that prevent large scale projects from being realized in a timely manner.

Although not discussed during today’s proceedings, the Act as it is currently written includes adjustments to the Tribal Transportation Program which would allocate more money for transportation projects on tribal land. The adjustments would set aside $460,000,000 for the 2016 fiscal year and would increase by $10,000,000 each consecutive FY up to $510,000,000 by 2021. The DRIVE Act also creates a “Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program” which would set aside funding for construction or maintenance projects sponsored by eligible Federal land management agencies or Indian tribes. Other amendments to Title 23 include a provision making tribal transportation facilities projects eligible for emergency assistance; also, the administrative expenses are expected to be cut from 6 percent to 5 percent while increasing the potential amount set aside for tribal transportation facilities bridges from 2 percent to 3 percent for each FY.

With just under forty days until the current highway program extension expires, the committee stressed the importance of continued bipartisan cooperation to ensure the creation of viable sources of revenue for the Act.

Click to view the hearing Webcast

Below are excerpts from the DRIVE Act that impact Tribal transportation funds. The excerpts may be truncated.

 Title I—Federal-Aid Highways

Subtitle A—Authorizations and Programs

 Sec. 1001. Tribal Transportation Program.—

For the tribal transportation program under section 202 of title 23, United States Code—

(a)(3)(A)

  • $470,000,000 for fiscal year 2017;
  • $480,000,000 for fiscal year 2018;
  • $490,000,000 for fiscal year 2019;
  • $500,000,000 for fiscal year 2020; and
  • $510,000,000 for fiscal year 2021.

Sec. 1022. Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads.

  • —Section 125(d)(3) of title 23, United States Code, is amended—
  • in subparagraph (A), by striking “or” at the end;
  • in subparagraph (B), by striking the period at the end and inserting “; or”; and
  • by adding at the end of the following:

“(C) projects eligible for assistance under this section located on tribal transportation facilities, Federal lands transportation facilities, or other federally owned roads that are open to public travel (as defined in subsection (e)(1)).”.

Sec. 1026. Tribal Transportation Program Amendment.

Section 202 of title 23, United States Code, is amended—

  • in section (a)(6), by striking “6 percent” and inserting “5 percent”; and
  • in subsection (d)(2), in the matter preceding subparagraph (A) by striking “2 percent” and inserting “3 percent”.

Sec. 1027. Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program.

  • —The Secretary shall establish a nationally significant Federal lands and tribal projects program (referred to in this section as the “program”) to provide funding to construct, reconstruct, or rehabilitate nationally significant Federal lands and tribal transportation projects.
  • Eligible Applicants.—
  • In General.—Except as provided in paragraph (2), entities eligible to receive funds under sections 201, 202, 203, and 204 of title 23, United States Code, may apply for funding under the program.
  • Special Rule.—A State, county, or unit of local government may only apply for funding under the program if sponsored by an eligible Federal land management agency or Indian tribe.
  • Eligible Projects.—An eligible project under the program shall be a single continuous project—
  • on a Federal lands transportation facility, a Federal lands access transportation facility, or a Tribal transportation facility (as those terms are defined in section 101 of title 23, United States Code), except that such facility is not required to be included on an inventory described in sections 202 or 203 of title 23, United States Code;
  • for which completion of activities required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) has been demonstrated through—
  • a record of decision with respect to the project;
  • a finding that the project has no significant impact; or
  • a determination that the project is categorically excluded; and
  • having an estimated cost, based on the results of preliminary engineering, equal to or exceeding $25,000,000, with priority consideration given to projects with an estimated cost equal to or exceeding $50,000,000.
  • Eligible Activities.—
  • In General—Subject to paragraph (2), an eligible applicant receiving funds under the program may only use the funds for construction, reconstruction, and rehabilitation activities.
  • Applications
  • Selection Criteria.—In selecting a project to receive funds under the program, the Secretary shall consider the extent to which the project—
  • furthers the goals of the Department, including state of good repair, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, quality of life, and safety;
  • improves the condition of critical multimodal transportation facilities;
  • needs construction, reconstruction, or rehabilitation;
  • is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places;
  • enhances environmental ecosystems;
  • uses new technologies and innovations that enhance the efficiency of the project;
  • is supported by funds, other than the funds received under the program, to construct, maintain, and operate the facility;
  • spans 2 or more States; and
  • serves land owned by multiple Federal agencies or Indian tribes.

Subtitle B—Data

 Sec. 2101. Tribal Data Collection.

Section 201(c)(6) of title 23, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:

“(C) Tribal Data Collection.—In addition to the data to be collected under subparagraph (A), not later than 90 days after the end of each fiscal year, any entity carrying out a project under the tribal transportation program under section 202 shall submit to the Secretary and the Secretary of the Interior, based on obligations and expenditures under the tribal transportation program during the preceding fiscal year, the following data:

“(i) The names of projects or activities carried out by the entity under the tribal transportation program during the preceding fiscal year.

“(ii) A description of the projects or activities identified under clause (i).

“(iii) The current status of the projects or activities identified under clause (i).

“(iv) An estimate of the number of jobs created and the number of jobs retained by the projects or activities identified under clause (i).”.

Title VI—Extension of Federal-Aid Highway Programs

 Sec. 6001. Extension of Federal-Aid Highway Programs.

(c) Tribal High Priority Projects Program.–

Section 1123(h)(1) of MAP-21 (23 U.S.C. 202 note; Public Law 112-141) is amended—

  • by striking “$24,986,301” and inserting “$30,000,000”; and

by striking “July 31, 2015” and inserting “September 30, 2015″.

Click here for The DRIVE Act and Committee Summary

Update on Senate Committee Chairs and their Agenda for the New Congress

New GOP Senate Chairs Aim To Undo Obama Policies

Posted: 01/03/2015 8:16 am EST Updated: 01/03/2015 10:59 am EST
PAT ROBERTS

With Republicans winning control of the Senate in the November election, all the committees will get new leaders, though all have been around for years.

The heads of the 13 major committees and Veterans’ Affairs are some of the most senior members of the Senate. Three are octogenarians and four are in their late 70s. Only one new leader will be a woman; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is in line to take over the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A look at the powerful senators and their issues:

___

AGRICULTURE

Kansas’ Pat Roberts, 78, will consider renewal of child nutrition programs that have been pushed by the White House and expire next year. Roberts has criticized efforts to make school lunches healthier, calling for studies on the costs of the program and economic impact on schools.

Roberts has been a recent dissenter on the normally bipartisan panel, voting against the five-year farm bill that Congress passed in May. Roberts supported the bill’s boost in crop insurance for farmers but said other subsidies needed more changes. He called the entire bill “a look in the rear-view mirror.”

Like his Republican counterparts in the House, Roberts has championed cutting back spending for food stamps, saying the farm bill’s estimated cut of $8 billion over 10 years was insufficient.

Roberts held the gavel of the House Agriculture Committee 20 years ago and during his tenure he helped write the 1996 farm bill.

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APPROPRIATIONS

The gavel of the powerful panel responsible for drafting approximately one-third of the federal budget will return to Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, who turned 77 in December and was just re-elected to a seventh term.

Cochran was in charge during the last two years of the previous GOP majority and was a driving force behind more than $100 billion in funding to help Gulf Coast states recover from Hurricane Katrina. He was also a big practitioner of earmarks, those home-state goodies such as highway projects, economic development grants and university research dollars.

GOP leaders have banned earmarking, but Cochran is sure to back Navy shipbuilding efforts. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, which makes a variety of Navy ships such as modern destroyers, is Mississippi’s largest private employer.

Republicans are expected to use the 12 spending bills to challenge Obama on policy issues, such as health care, financial services, immigration and the environment.

____

ARMED SERVICES

Leading the committee has been a long-sought goal for 78-year-old John McCain of Arizona, the former Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war and two-time presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008.

McCain, who has hinted he might seek a sixth term in 2016, stands as one of Obama’s fiercest critics on national security, casting the administration as weak and ineffective in countering threats overseas. He has repeatedly called for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels and favors more U.S. forces in Iraq to battle Islamic State militants.

McCain has been critical of Pentagon contracting. Increased examination of defense manufacturers and acquisition policy is certain. The Pentagon can largely forget about scrapping the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which McCain heavily favors, and can expect close scrutiny of the costly F-35 fighter jet.

____

BANKING, HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS

The wily Richard Shelby, 80, makes a return tour as head of the committee. High on his agenda will be changes to the financial overhaul law enacted in response to the 2008 crisis, known as Dodd-Frank. The 2010 law that brought stricter regulation of banks and Wall Street has been a burr in the side of Republican lawmakers, and the GOP-controlled House has passed numerous bills to unwind it.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the next majority leader, put it plainly at his day-after-the-election news conference: “The Banking Committee is certainly going to look at Dodd-Frank.” The big banks, he said, “are doing just fine under Dodd-Frank. The community bankers are struggling.”

Besides bank rules, the committee under the Alabama senator also may focus on curbing the authority of the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau over auto lenders and credit card companies. The bureau was created by the financial law.

Also likely to get committee attention is legislation to reshape the housing finance system and wind down mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Shelby succeeded as head of the panel from 2003 to 2007 in blocking bank regulation proposals.

____

BUDGET

In a surprise, Wyoming’s Mike Enzi will become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee after Jeff Sessions of Alabama stepped aside. Sessions had been the top Republican on the committee the past four years.

Enzi, 70, said he will work to craft a budget “that cuts spending, targets executive overreach and reduces the size of government.”

He will be called upon to craft a budget framework that could serve as a template for follow-up legislation to repeal Obama’s health care law and, perhaps, tackle expensive benefit programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

___

COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION

South Dakota’s John Thune, 53, faces a heavy workload — reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and Amtrak, net neutrality and transportation.

The committee will have to address the auto safety portions of the highway bill in the aftermath of General Motors faulty ignition switch recalls, now linked to more than two dozen deaths, and the Takata air bag recalls, also linked to several deaths. Proposals to toughen federal oversight of the auto industry are likely. Some lawmakers have called for eliminating the $35 million cap on how much the government can fine automakers in such cases.

____

ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES

An energy policy expert from an energy-producing state, the 57-year-old Murkowski wants to unlock as much of America’s energy as safely possible.

Murkowski has argued for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, as well as Alaska’s offshore, and has opposed regulations that block energy production. She believes EPA regulations to curb coal-fired power plant pollution to deal with global warming will threaten the reliability and raise the costs of electricity.

She supports exporting U.S. natural gas and has led the charge on pressuring the administration to lift restrictions on exports of crude oil. She has backed the immediate approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which McConnell has said will be first on the new agenda.

Murkowski, unlike others in the GOP, believes global warming is happening and that Alaskans are already experiencing the effects of rising water temperatures and thinning ice.

____

ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS

The likely ascent of Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, 79, represents one of the biggest sea changes on a Senate committee with Republicans in charge.

Inhofe, one of Congress’ most vocal deniers of the scientific consensus of climate change, wrote in a 2012 book that global warming was “a hoax.” He will replace Californian Barbara Boxer, who introduced climate change legislation in 2009 and was an ally of the environmental community and Obama.

Inhofe, by contrast, is a thorn in the side of the Environmental Protection Agency and has argued that more regulation will kill the economy and jobs. Inhofe has called on the EPA to abandon stricter rules on refinery air pollution and to reject their own scientists’ recommendation to tighten a standard for the main ingredient in smog. Inhofe is likely to boost oversight of the agency and try to thwart its agenda at a time when Obama wants to shore up his climate legacy.

____

FINANCE

The 2010 health care law is in the GOP’s crosshairs, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, 80, is likely to use his position to take the first step at chipping away at it.

Hatch has called the law’s tax on medical devices “stupid” and is determined to roll it back. He is likely to gain some Democratic support for the effort.

Hatch could be a free-trade ally for Obama if the president pushes more trade agreements.

Overhauling the nation’s complicated tax laws also is a priority for Hatch. But it’s a heavy lift.

Administration officials say Obama will offer new specifics in the coming year on how he would like to reshape corporate taxes, which now feature the highest rate in the industrialized world. But bridging the divide between Republicans and Democrats on major tax legislation would require a level of bipartisanship that has largely been absent during Obama’s first six years as president.

Hatch has worked with Democrats in the past; his friendship with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is legendary. Hatch will need to work with Democrats again if he is to advance an overhaul of the tax code.

____

FOREIGN RELATIONS

Tennessee’s Bob Corker, 62, has criticized Obama’s foreign policy as tepid in dealing with Russia, Libya and Syria. Like several other Republicans on the committee, Corker has deep reservations about the administration’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Some Republicans have said the GOP will push new penalties this month that target Tehran.

Secretary of State John Kerry has asked Congress for new war powers in the fight against the Islamic State group. Corker has raised the possibility that he could work with the administration on the issue.

Obama’s ambassadorial picks and other nominees would face a rough outing before the committee.

___

HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR AND PENSIONS

Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, 74, is a former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, governor and president of the University of Tennessee.

A lawyer by trade, he helped form a corporate childcare company in the private sector. Alexander said he wants to fix President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law that’s been due to be renewed since 2007 and update the Higher Education Act.

He’s called the health care law a “historic mistake” and supports repealing it. He’s also said modernizing the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration is a necessity, and he is seeking to examine the FDA’s process for drug and device review. On workers’ issues, he’s sought to turn the National Labor Relations Board into what he says is more of an umpire role.

____

JUDICIARY

A farmer, not an attorney, Iowa’s Charles Grassley, 81, has been on the Judiciary Committee since his 1980 election to the Senate. But this will be his first stint as its chairman.

In that post, many expect him to continue his long-running interest in protecting whistle-blowers who reveal details of alleged fraud by government contractors and others. He’s also expected to continue oversight of programs like the Justice Department’s bungled “Fast and Furious” operation, under which federal agents lost control of guns they were tracing to Mexican drug lords. Many also expect him to work on legislation easing federal regulations on businesses.

Grassley opposed last year’s Senate-approved bipartisan immigration bill, arguing that it needed to do more to secure the country’s borders before granting legal status to people in the U.S. illegally. He’s also pressed for more information about the National Security Agency’s ability to gather information on Americans, though he’s cautioned that the agency must be able to protect national security.

A decade ago, Grassley spent time as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and played a role in winning approval of President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts and the 2003 addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare.

____

HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS

Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, 59, has been a tough questioner of administration officials about the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The question will be whether the panel’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation opens another Benghazi inquiry in Congress as well as other reviews of the Democratic administration.

Under the leadership of Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, the committee focused primarily on the internal workings of the sprawling Homeland Security Department, including low morale ratings from rank-and-file employees and contracting issues.

Johnson has focused on those rankings in the past and led an investigation of complaints from whistle-blowers about the department’s former acting inspector general. His report, co-authored with Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, prompted DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to suspend the former top internal investigator.

While the committee has addressed immigration issues in the past, senators on this panel have not taken as prominent a role as their counterparts on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the coming months, however, any administrative changes put in place by Obama are almost certain to be reviewed.

___

VETERANS’ AFFAIRS:

Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, 70, has stressed mental health needs of veterans and voted in favor a bill to provide two-year funding for veterans’ benefits, so veterans would continue to receive benefits even in a government shutdown.

Aides say Isakson’s priorities as chairman would include oversight of the new Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which was approved this past summer in response to a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and falsification of records to cover up delays.

Isakson strongly supports a provision in the law that makes it easier for veterans to seek Department of Veterans Affairs-paid care from local doctors. Bringing competition into the VA health care system will improve services, he says. Isakson also said the new law provides an opportunity for the VA to assess the quality of it leadership and management, and said underperforming executives and managers should be fired.

____

Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Kimberly Hefling, Joan Lowy, Alan Fram, Marcy Gordon, Matthew Daly and Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

WASHINGTON UPDATE: What will happen in the New Congress

The Spending Bill:

 The House of Representatives passed a spending bill, on a vote of 206 to 219.  At the time Tribal Conferences were being held in Las Vegas, the week of Dec. 9, the bill was in the Senate awaiting vote.  The Senate, since has passed the spending bill just a few hours before midnight on Saturday Dec. 13, 2014 and avoided a Government Shutdown.  The vote was 56 to 40 assuring the government would remain funded until September 15, 2015.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Mass. objected to the roll back of Wall Street reforms that would allow for risky investments that could again lead to bail outs of the banks. Another poison pill objected to by Democrats was the increase in election campaign contributions jumping from 90 million to over 300,000 million in allowable soft money.  But the bill was considered a compromise for both parties, and the President will receive full spending on all but one agency, Homeland Security, to postpone the immigration debate until February.

 The bottom line, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the conservative wing of the Republican Party were disappointed.  The result however, is the President did receive extra funding for Ebola research and to fight ISIS, and full funding of agencies that are implementing the Affordable Care Act.

On the elections, the tables have turn in the Senate:  The new republican majority isn’t likely to play nice, and payback will likely be the name of the game.  The vote count, in the Senate, Republicans now control with 54, and the Dems 44, with 2 Independents.

In the House, a sharper turn to the right, House leaders will have to navigate a larger GOP caucus ripe with fresh hard-liners ready to oppose them.  The vote count, Reps control a bigger majority with 244 and the Dems 184 and 7 are not yet called.

 On the issues, Speaker Boehner has complained about the conservatives in his caucus as “knuckleheads” but has expressed confidence to keep his caucus together.  He has said that tax reform and a big Highway bill are doable.   He has put fixing the tax code as a priority to improve the economy, although most say big reform is too ambitious for a divided republican caucus.

 The House will push for their jobs bills that died in the Senate and for the keystone pipeline.  And they will fight for repeal of the medial device tax in Obama Care.  And it is predicted that more stalemate will occur on the budget and debt ceiling issues that will come up in the new congress.   A budget resolution is due in March or April, but it is likely to see continuing resolutions and there will be intense debates on the debt ceiling to increase government borrowing.   It is predicted that Republican leadership will continue to struggle to get consensus as some try to force cuts to shut down immigration reform or Obama Care Programs.

 In the Senate with a new majority and Mitch McConnell in charge the President and the Democratic Caucus will feel payback.  Republicans have said they are going after health care, financial services, and EPA.  So the chances of a grand bargain on the Tax Code are slim and soon there will be political maneuvering of the 2016 Presidential Contest.  They predict a narrow window next year to get things done.

 On Committee’s:  In the House, retirements, term limits and election results yield new dynamics.  On Transportation, Shuster remains as Chair, and looks like for Dems because Rahall from West Va lost, that Peter Defazio will be ranking from Oregon.  Natural Resources with departure of Doc Hasting , Bob Bishp of Utah will be Chair.  Hanabusa lost her fight for Senate so not sure as of yet the ranking member of Resources.

 On Ways and Means, Paul Ryan is taking over for Camp.  Ryan did support this fall Camp’s proposal for funneling in the one-time windfall from over hauling corporate taxes into infrastructure.   The administration has called this transitional funding for Transportation falling out of Tax reform.  On Agriculture, Conway of Texas replaces Lucas as Chairman.  Appropriations Rogers of Kentucky remains as Chair, and Lowry of NY as ranking member.  Budget is Price as Chairman. On Energy, Upton is Chair and Pallone won the fight over Democrat Eshoo for ranking member who was favored by Pelosi.

 In the Senate the new majority means a real changing of the guard is occurring.  On Commerce Science and Transportation John Thune of SD replacing Jay Rockefeller as Chair.  Senator Boxer is senior and is likely to hold ranking member.  On Environmental and Public Works that decides the tribal transportation formula, Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma will Chair.   And Senator Bill Nelson the Ranking member on Commerce.

On Energy Murkowski of Alaska will chair with Maria Cantwell as Ranking.  On Finance, Senator Orin Hatch will Chair, Appropriations Thad Cochran will Chair, and Milkulski of MD is ranking.  On Armed Service McCain will Chair and Reed of RI will be ranking.  On Budget Senator Enzi of Wyoming, and on Banking Senator Shelby of Alabama will Chair.  Senator Barrasso will Chair the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.  It is still very dynamic and not all Chairmanships have been announced.

 What will happen with Transportation and the re-authorization bill and trust fund, and the now May 15th deadline?

 Chairman Shuster has vowed not to do short term funding and has proposed a six year measure.  Paul Ryan has proposed funding through the Tax Code.  And the administration has also said that through Tax reforms what they refer to as Transitional funding would allow for increases in the Highway Trust fund.  But the reforms to the Tax code are not likely to look the same from opposing parties.

 Recently at a Department of Transportation listening session the Deputy Secretary commented that he believes a compromise would be possible and that funding could be increased by a onetime infusion of 150 billion as part of the Grow American Act introduced by the President. Right now the Highway Trust Fund is short by 167 Billion.  So there is a scramble to find new funding.

The Grow America Act introduced by the Administration, is a 4 year authorization of Transportation, both sides want an authorization bill that is longer term.   And Speaker Boehner has said that he believes a big Highway Bill is doable in the new congress.  But can they meet the May deadline and whether it is possible to get a tax code revision in time to add money into the Highway Trust fund is the question.

The president’s proposal is funded by supplementing current revenue with $150 billion in one time infusion of  ‘Transition’ revenue.  So from addressing the 1 to 2 trillion of un-taxed foreign earnings that US companies have accumulated overseas and from reforming accumulated depreciation–this one time savings from a transition to new business tax system could help pay for the proposed transportation budget.

 Paul Ryan has also expressed support for the former Ways and Means Chairman Camp’s proposed windfall from tax reform for infrastructure funding.  Thus it appears that there is the political will from both the Republicans and the White House to use tax reform to pour money into infrastructure.

 The bottom-line: Both parties will have to work together to get major measures through congress, but there does appear to be political will on both sides to pass a longer term authorization bill and to find new funding for the Highway Trust Fund through tax reform.

 Read The Year According to Rep. Tom Cole

Roll Call Article: 3 Reasons Congress’ Year Might Start Unexpectedly Strong

 

By David HawkingsPosted at 8 p.m. on Jan. 5

Congress is reopening for business this week, to begin what President Barack Obama says “needs to be a year of action.”

When the president offered that call to arms for 2014, just as the Capitol lights were being dimmed for the holidays, the eye-rolling sentiment from so many lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists amounted to: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that.”

The collective assessment is there’s no way that 2013, the least legislatively productive first year of an administration in six decades, is going to be followed by a more productive spurt from a divided Congress in an election year.

However, the next 10 weeks may hold some genuine prospects for rebutting the conventional wisdom, if only temporarily.

A trio of hallmark accomplishments in the second session of the 113th Congress have strong potential to get done before St. Patrick’s Day. Assuming the Republicans keep to their current course — confining their focus to avoid new, self-inflicted political wounds — lawmakers will be able to extend their current truce in the budget wars not only on the spending front but on borrowing as well. A food and farm bill that gives both sides a claim to victory is well within reach.

And, without traveling too far into optimistic fantasy-land, it’s possible to envision that bipartisan success on that trifecta by March would spawn interest in reaching for some additional deals in the spring. An immigration overhaul may still be the longest of viable long shots, but there’s some hopeful early talk about carefully calibrating compromise on a variety of second-tier issues left hanging at the end of 2013 — from sentencing disparities to water projects, patent lawsuits to online sales taxes, energy efficiency standards to physician reimbursement rates.

All those remain a ways off, but here’s a sketch of why each of the wintertime Big Three are likely to get done.

Appropriations. It sure sounds daunting, producing a single measure in five weeks that apportions all $1 trillion in discretionary spending for the rest of this fiscal year. But, in the current context, the omnibus spending package that’s supposed to be unveiled this week is more the legislative equivalent of a two-foot putt on the 18th hole, with the winner’s purse on the line.  Yes, it’s possible to crack under the pressure and mess it up, but true professionals are supposed to approach the ball with confidence and make sinking the shot look easy.

Bipartisan majorities embraced last month’s budget accord in no small measure because it promised to end talk about government shutdowns until after the midterm elections. But this spending bill needs to get signed to make that promise a reality. Even a little flirting with the Jan. 15 deadline will prompt a revival of the cable TV countdown clock graphics, which in turn would threaten to drive congressional approval ratings back into the single digits from which they’ve just emerged. (And that was thanks entirely to the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder phenomenon of the two-week holiday break.)

Although the Republicans have more to lose — because they have been blamed most for the last shutdown — neither party can afford to start the year looking like it might fail a test it has essentially told the public it’s already passed. So expectations are high that the bill will be cleared with only minimal fuss, mainly because the appropriations committees are warding off almost all the social, environmental and health policy riders that could threaten the whole process

Debt limit.  If “failure is not an option” is the political watchword on the spending bill, the motto applies doubly to granting the Treasury permission to borrow more.

The last fiscal showdown ended only when the potential for a market-rattling default was just hours away. Republicans may have waited until the final hour before blinking in October, but they’re highly unlikely to make a return to brinkmanship this time. That’s because they know doing so would change the principal national political story — Obamacare’s rocky rollout — back into the tale of GOP extremism

Republicans will talk a while longer about demanding concessions from Obama in return for a higher debt ceiling, but the diverse list of hostages they’ll mention will signal they don’t have the stomach for a real confrontation. And Obama has left absolutely no room in his rhetoric for making the borrowing limit part of any deal. “It is not something that is a negotiating tool,” he said at his year-end news conference. “It’s not leverage. It’s the responsibility of Congress. It’s part of doing their job.”

Permission to issue new debt lapses on Feb. 7, but Treasury says it can stretch cash flow into early March, when the outstanding debt will stand at about $17.3 trillion. Rather than raise the dollar limit on borrowing, which was the legislative practice for decades, Congress will probably move instead to allow Treasury leeway to borrow what it needs until a specific date. Sometime during the lame-duck session, scheduled to start Nov. 12, is a decent bet.

Farm bill.  Negotiators are signaling a breakthrough is imminent on an impasse that began 15 months ago. For farmers, the most important feature will be a new subsidy system to replace direct payments, which are widely derided outside rural America because they are delivered regardless of crop prices.

Politically, the No. 1 issue remains how much to pare nutrition assistance for the poor. House Republicans appear united behind the view that, with the economy on the mend, a 6 percent cut to food stamps is not unreasonable. A bipartisan majority in the Senate, viewing the safety net fundamentally differently, went for a cut of about half of 1 percent. Negotiators have settled on 1.5 percent, or $8 billion over a decade, combined with some of the stiffened work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients that GOP conservatives want.

The assumption here is that — as an extension of his newly short-fused approach to the tea partyers in his ranks — Speaker John A. Boehner will permit the House to debate such a package, knowing it would clear with far less than a majority of the majority.

The Ohio Republican’s rationale would be that, for the election-year good of the party, he needs to bring a belated end to at least one marquee piece of the class warfare debate. Plus, Boehner knows Republicans are going to dig in their heels elsewhere, starting with the future for the minimum wage and long-term jobless benefits.

One sure bet: Even if the farm bill doesn’t get done, Congress will make quick work of a yearlong stopgap. Lawmakers may still be gridlocked, but they’re not crazy — and the absence of a temporary farm bill, to make a complex story short, would threaten a doubling of retail dairy prices.

If there’s one way not to start a campaign year, it’s being blamed for a $7 gallon of milk.

 

Lawmakers Agree to a Deal: Cease Fire in Spending War

Last week, both houses of Congress passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal put forth by the Budget Conference Committee.  The House passed the measure on Thursday night Dec. 12th by a 332-94 vote, and the Senate followed suit by passing the deal the following Thursday Dec. 19th by a vote of 64-36, and the final measure was to be signed into law by President Obama before he leaves on holiday travels to Hawaii.  The two year deal provides for $1.012 trillion in discretionary spending in FY2014, with a slight increase to $1.014 trillion for FY2015.   The compromise deal sits essentially half-way between the $1.058 trillion passed by the Democratically controlled Senate in their budget bill this past spring and the $967 billion sequester level spending Republicans sought to continue.

The deal allocates $520.5 billion in military spending and $491.8 billion for domestic programs in 2014.  The across the board spending cuts of sequestration have been lifted, with the moderately increased spending to be split evenly between military and domestic spending, which restores military funding nearly to pre-sequestration levels.  However, Congress will still face tough decisions in allocating domestic spending through the appropriations process, but the impact on popular programs such as education and Head Start will be less severe. The compromise deal does not continue unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed which are set to expire three days after Christmas, as Democrats had wanted, and it removes the across the board spending cuts of sequestration in exchange for future savings, disappointing Republicans.  In favor of reaching a deal in time to meet the January 15, 2014 deadline, the larger and more ideological issues of tax reform to raise more revenue and containing growing Medicare and Social Security entitlement spending were left largely unresolved.

Among other specific provisions, the deal raises airline fees, presumably to be dedicated towards costs of airport security, and extends the 2% reduction in Medicare payments under the Budget Control Act of 2011 for an additional two years through 2023.  However, the largest impact will be felt by government employees and military veterans.  Although federal workers will receive a 1% pay increase, that is below the 1.2% inflation rate recently published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and does not extend to the lowest paid tiers of wage grade federal employees.  New federal employees will be required to contribute 4.4% of their income towards their government pension program, a continued increase from the .8% required pre-sequestration.  Also contentious is the reduction of the cost-of-living adjustments by 1% for military retirees under age 62.  Despite the increased spending, domestic programs may still face staff reductions through layoffs and early retirement or buyout offers.

Recognizing the challenging timetable to complete the appropriations process before the current stop-gap measure that ended the October federal shut down expires on January 15, 2014, the allocation levels for the twelve individual appropriations bills, known as 302(b) spending caps, were not made public as is customary.  Each subcommittee was privately told it’s cap and given until January 2, 2014 to make detailed appropriations and policy changes.  Negotiators will convene the following week with the goal of getting passage through the House by January 10, allowing the Senate to begin deliberations on January 13, in time to send a final bill to President Obama for his signature by the January 15 deadline. Assuming this two-year budget deal can be finalized in time to meet the January 15 deadline, Congress still faces revisiting the debt-ceiling issue as that short-term measure is set to lapse as early as March 2014.

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