Washington News – Obama Administration/Congress
The President announced last Thursday and Friday sweeping executive action on immigration. Most notably, his plan expands deferred action to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants. This group includes parents of US citizens and lawful permanent residents who have resided the US for more than five years. These individuals would have to agree to pay taxes and pass criminal background checks. If they meet these criteria, they would be granted legal status for three years through deferred action. The President’s action also includes provisions for high-skilled workers in the US legally (or for those planning on entering the US legally). The administrative reforms include job portability for immigrants with employment-based petitions but who are unable to get visas due to low caps, a review of the permanent labor certification program, and guidance on the L-1B intra-company transferee visas. Republicans have sharply criticized the President’s executive order. House Speaker John Boehner said that these actions have obliterated any hope of bipartisan legislation in the next Congress. Soon to be Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has promised action against the President. While both have ruled out a shutdown or utilizing the debt ceiling to get the Administration to reverse its policy, defunding agencies that would deal with these programs continues to be seriously considered (although visa fees make these types of programs self-sustaining). A number of Republican governors have also made public their plans to sue the President.
In addition to the President’s executive action on immigration, DHS and USCIS are issuing a number of proposed and final rules for legal immigrants. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will publish final rules that grant work authorization to dependent spouses of H-1B guest-workers if they are in the process of obtaining permanent residence through employment (spouses hold H-4 visas and are presently not able to accept employment). DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a memorandum last week where he directs USCIS employees to coordinate with the Department of State on the issuance of green cards so to improve the system of determining when green cards become available to applicants. He also is urging USCIS to reform regulations to allow employment-based visa petitions to remain valid even when the applicant changes jobs or employers. Finally, Johnson’s memo calls for reforms to the OPT program, programs for immigrant entrepreneurs, PERM, U visas, and T visas.
There are a number of agenda items that require attention during the lame-duck session of Congress. Most pressing is funding the government after the current CR (passed before the election) expires December 11. On the week of December 8, an omnibus budget is expected to be revealed although there is no guarantee yet that it will receive a floor vote. While an omnibus bill remains a possibility, it is also likely that some agencies will receive funding for the year while others will be temporarily funded through CRs. It is also possible that Congress passes a CR to extend government funding into the new year, when Republicans control both houses of Congress. Regardless, Republican leadership is intent on avoiding another shutting down. In terms of a national defense authorization bill, the original Senate and House versions had a significant number of differences. However committees are negotiating and nearly all of these differences have been resolved. The bill is not expected to reach the floor until after Thanksgiving. Also, 50 tax breaks are set to expire at the end of the year. While the Senate’s EXPIRE act would renew most of these breaks through 2015, the House’s bill would make some of the breaks permanent. An agreement has not yet been reached. Finally, the Internet access tax ban expires on December 11. The Terrorism Risk Insurance Act and STELA – the Satellite TV law expires December 31. Outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid will try to get as many nominations through as he can before the end of the year, but Loretta Lynch’s nomination for Attorney General will be dealt with in 2015.
Democrats and Republicans have elected leadership for the next session of Congress, and many committee chairs have been selected. Below are changes to chairmanships in the House. Senate committees remains in flux.
o Agriculture: K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) will replace Frank Lucas (R- OK) as Chair
o Armed Services: Mac Thornberry (R- TX) will replace Buck McKeon (R-CA) as Chair
o Budget: Tom Price (R-GA) will replace Paul Ryan (R-WI) as Chair
o Energy and Commerce: Frank Pallone (D-NJ) will replace Henry Waxman (D-CA) as the ranking member
o Ethics: Charlie Dent (R-PA) will replace Mike Conaway as Chair (R-TX). Democrats have yet to select their ranking member.
o Intelligence: Devin Nunes (R-CA) will replace Mike Rogers (R-MI) as chair
o Natural Resources: Rob bishop (R-UT) will replace Doc Hastings (R-WA) as chair
o Oversight and Government Reform: Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) will replace Darrell Issa (R-CA) as chair
o Small Business: Steve Chabot (R-OH) will replace Sam Graves (R-MO) as chair
o Transportation and Infrastructure: Peter DeFazio (D-OR) will replace Nick Rahall (D-WV) as the ranking member
o Veterans’ Affairs: Corrine Brown (D-FL) will replace Mike Michaud (D-ME) as the ranking member
Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel is resigning from his position due to friction with the White House over its national security policy, including the Administration’s strategy in Syria and against ISIS/ISIL. Hagel will stay on until a successor is confirmed. Possible nominees include Ashton Carter (a former Deputy Defense Secretary), Michele Flournoy (a former undersecretary of defense), and Democratic Senator from Rhode Island – Jack Reed.
Energy and the Environment
Keystone XL pipeline approval failed to pass the Senate by one vote. Republicans expect to have enough support in the Senate come January to pass the 60 vote threshold. Congressional approval of the Keystone pipeline will be a priority for the Republican majorities in the House and Senate in 2015. The President has yet to indicate whether he will support any such legislation next year, although approval could be a bargaining point between the Administration and Congressional Republicans.
The Obama Administration has decided to delay a decision on quotas for using renewable fuels in gasoline and other products. The EPA made the announcement Thursday and are now a year late in establishing mandates for 2014. The Agency will instead establish retroactive 2014 requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standards in 2015 – the same time it establishes 2015 and 2016 quotas. The EPA could also end up waiving requirements or accept what was produced as meeting the mandate this year. Due to these delays, Congressional and court action are likely. Legislatively, Congress has tried to revise the mandates although nothing has made it to a vote yet. From a legal perspective, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers has filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA. They are urging the agency to “take prompt action to promulgate the 2014 standards.”
The EPA has expressed concern over the number of petitions surfacing that seek to withdraw a number of states’ authority over their Clean Water Act permit programs. Presently, the EPA has 19 petitions asking the agency to withdraw state authority to operate their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit programs. 46 states presently have been delegated authority to run this program as they have demonstrated to the EPA their ability to meet minimum federal requirements. However, under the law, groups are able to petition the EPA to suspend said authority if these requirements are not being met. The EPA has publicly stated its preference to act as a co-regulator with states as opposed to withdrawing entire programs from state jurisdiction.
On Thursday, the EPA issued a proposed rule that would establish national emission standards for brick, structural clay product, and clay ceramic manufacturing facilities. The proposal targets hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride and a number of other air toxics. The EPA hopes to reduce the emissions of these air toxics by 440 tons annually. This proposed rule comes amidst a court-ordered deadline following a ruling from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that found the EPA’s methods of establishing floors and ceiling for emission standards violated the Clean Air Act and created standards that were not rigorous enough.
This January, the Department of Interior will auction the rights to construct wind turbines off the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard shores. This would be the federal government’s largest competitive lease sale of offshore wind development, encompassing 742,000 acres (that will be sold off in four lots) that could produce up to 5 gigawatts of wind power. The sale would effectively triple offshore acreage available for wind energy. 12 pre-approved companies will participate in the auction.
The Bureau of Land Management has, for the first time, rejected a solar power plant proposal in Southern California that would have fallen outside land already designated for such purposes. The proposal was put forward by Iberdrola SA. BLM stated that the project would adversely affect wildlife and the ecosystem in the area.