Capitol Hill Monday-Highway Funding

Members return to Capitol Hill Monday with fiscal year 2016 appropriations on the agenda and a looming highway authorization deadline on the calendar. Congress faces a Friday deadline to complete work on the highway and infrastructure legislation because the current extension expires on Nov. 20 at midnight. Even though members were largely back in their districts last week, staff for House and Senate conferees appointed to a bicameral conference committee were working to resolve differences between the versions of the long-term highway and infrastructure authorization bills passed by both chambers. While both versions of the bill reauthorize the highway program for six years, they both provide funding only for the first three years, requiring Congress to come up with the remaining three years of financing. In addition, differences remain in the ways each chamber pays for the programs. Press reports indicate there is optimism that the bicameral committee will produce the conference report on a long-term bill that can be passed by both chambers and sent to the president for signature before the end of the week. Nevertheless, it is likely House and Senate leadership would move quickly to pass another short-term extension of current authorization until the conference committee can complete its work should unforeseen delays take place.

Appropriations for 2016 will also be on the agenda this week, even though the fiscal year is already well underway. Passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act in October established topline allocations for discretionary programs, a breakthrough that is allowing the stalled appropriations process to move forward. Now that a satisfactory budget framework has been established, House and Senate leadership are strategizing on how to complete appropriations work before a Dec. 11 expiration of current funding, but there does not yet appear to be any clear process for moving forward. Last week the Senate took up and unanimously passed its first appropriations bill this year, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill. The House has already passed six of the 12 annual spending bills and was considering a seventh when it was abruptly pulled from the floor.

Chairmen of the House Appropriations Subcommittees whose bills have not yet been considered by the full House have scheduled “listening sessions” with representatives who do not serve on the Appropriations Committee to get input on the remaining spending measures, according to press reports. New Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has reportedly polled the members of his conference on whether to resume consideration of individual spending bills or proceed with an omnibus bill, and apparently there was widespread support for developing a single omnibus spending bill.

Even without an established year-end plan, the Senate is likely to move forward with its second appropriations bill this week. Senators resume legislative business on Monday with a vote on a judicial nominee. Following this vote, it is expected that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will schedule the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (T-HUD) Appropriations Act for consideration during the remainder of the week. The bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides roughly $56 billion in discretionary spending for programs and functions within the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

The House returns on Monday with votes expected on 14 bills under suspension of the rules. Votes are also expected on motions to concur with Senate amendments to two bills, one related to disaster and recovery assistance programs and the other to commercial exploration of space resources.

On Tuesday, the House is expected to take up H.R. 511, the Tribal Sovereignty Act, subject to a rule. This legislation amends the National Labor Relations Act to provide that any enterprise or institution owned and operated by an Indian tribe and located on its lands is not considered an employer. This bill would prevent the National Labor Relations Board from exercising jurisdiction over tribal businesses operated on tribal lands. The House may also vote on a motion to go to conference with the Senate on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Press reports indicate that House and Senate committee chairmen and ranking members have resolved differences between the Senate- and House-passed versions of the bill and reached a preliminary agreement on a conference report. We can expect consideration of the education bill before Congress adjourns for the year in December.

During the remainder of the week, the House is expected to consider three pieces of legislation reported out of the Financial Services Committee, each subject to a rule: H.R. 1737, which would nullify guidance provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013 regarding indirect auto lending; H.R. 1210, legislation to modify Qualified Mortgage rules established by the Dodd-Frank Act (P.L. 111-203); and H.R. 3189, which would require reforms at the Federal Reserve in an effort to increase transparency and accountability.

Congressional committees resume a busy hearing and markup schedule this week, with a number of high-profile events occurring on Tuesday. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch will be making her inaugural appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning for a Justice Department oversight hearing. (General Lynch’s scheduled October appearance before the committee was rescheduled.) The House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology also meets Tuesday morning to conduct oversight of the Federal Communications Commission. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is scheduled to consider President Obama’s nomination of Dr. Robert M. Califf to become the next commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A joint hearing of House and Senate Homeland Security Subcommittees will take place in the afternoon to examine ongoing issues at the troubled Secret Service. Also occurring on Tuesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law is scheduled to consider the “State of Competition in the Pharmacy Benefits Manager and Pharmacy Marketplaces,” with representatives from local, corporate and online pharmacies scheduled to testify about increasing

The House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health meets Tuesday morning for a legislative hearing on 10 veterans health bills, while the full Veterans Affairs Committee will meet Wednesday to discuss the VA’s Plan to Consolidate Community Care Programs, submitted to Congress on Oct. 30. The Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity meets Wednesday afternoon to review the VA’s On-the-Job Training and Apprenticeship Program. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee also meets on Wednesday to review five pieces of legislation on veterans’ health and benefits.

There are again numerous House hearings this week focused on international activities in the Middle East and the campaign against the Islamic State. A joint hearing between the House Homeland Security and House Foreign Affairs Committees is scheduled for Wednesday morning to discuss terrorist sanctuaries. The hearing will likely also focus on the Russian passenger jet that crashed in the Sinai Peninsula last month and reports that a terrorist attack is the most likely cause of the disaster. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade will meet Tuesday afternoon on the topic of terrorist financing, while a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and National Security will meet Thursday to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on the security of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. These hearings and other key congressional hearings are listed below.

Martin J. Milita, Jr. Esq., is senior director at Duane Morris Government Strategies, LLC.

Duane Morris Government Strategies (DMGS) supports the growth of organizations, companies, communities and economies through a suite of government and business consulting services. The firm offers a range of government relations and public affairs services from its Washington DC offices and multiple state capitols, including lobbying, grant writing; development finance consulting, media relations management, grassroots campaigning and community outreach. Mr. Milita works at the firm’s Trenton and Newark New Jersey offices.

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Senate To Take Up Short-Term Highway Funding Bill

Martin J. Milita Jr. Esq., senior director at Duane Morris Government Strategies, comments on: Senate and Highway Funding Bill

Washington-based Duane Morris Government Strategies (DMGS) supports the growth of organizations, companies, communities and economies through a suite of government and business consulting services. The firm offers a range of government relations and public affairs services, including lobbying, grant writing; development finance consulting, media relations management, grassroots campaigning and community outreach. Milita works at the firm’s New Jersey offices.

Senate To Take Up Short-Term Highway Funding Bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday said that the Senate will take up a short-term highway funding extension to allow time for negotiations on a comprehensive bicameral bill, as the Senate continues debate on its long-term highway funding legislation.

The Senate intends to take up the $8 billion, three-month extension, extending authorization for highway funding through October, if and when it passes the House, allowing for a bicameral conference in September to develop a final long-term highway bill, McConnell told reporters.

The Senate is still set to vote on its own six-year highway funding bill, the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy, or Drive, Act, on Thursday, but any final vote will now likely be academic.

McConnell had been scrambling to get the bill through the Senate so it can be considered by the House before lawmakers leave on their summer recess and Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31. But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had at first been noncommittal and then bluntly against the bill, as senators adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

Reauthorizing the bank’s charter, which expired at the end of June, has won strong support across both parties in the Senate, but has faced a more hostile reception in the House, amid claims that it supports “corporate welfare.” Instead, McCarthy and other senior House Republicans pushed the Senate to take up a five-month highway funding extension, then the three-month extension put forward late on Monday, to allow the House time to come up with its own long-term highway funding plan and go to conference with the Senate.

The three-month extension, H.R. 3236, the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act, is expected to get a vote in the House on Wednesday. In addition to $8 billion in funding for the Highway Trust Fund — the same amount that had been in the previous five-month extension — the short-term bill also includes more than $3 billion in emergency funding to prevent a shortfall that may have forced several U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals to shutter temporarily.

Negotiators will likely have a lot to discuss before coming up with a final bicameral bill, with the Senate bill having generated significant debate both within and outside Congress, both for some of its policy provisions and for its proposed methods of keeping the Highway Trust Fund full.

The bill is intended to provide six years of funding and authorization for the trust fund, used to reimburse state and local governments for highway and other surface transportation infrastructure spending.

Currently, the trust fund pulls in about $35 billion a year from the federal gasoline tax — a significant sum, but more than $10 billion a year short of the necessary funding, with gas tax revenue having been eaten into by increasing fuel economy standards and inflation. Efforts to raise the gas tax, last increased in 1993, have proven politically unpalatable, so McConnell and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., instead sought to put together a $47 billion package of offsets in the Drive Act that would augment the fund for at least three years.

These would include tweaks to tax enforcement, extensions to Transportation Security Administration fees and government guarantee fees for mortgages underlying mortgage-backed securities, and the indexing of customs user fees to inflation, among other pay-fors.

But several of the proposed offsets have drawn criticism, including the two largest, a proposed sell-off of 100 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and a cut to the interest rate paid by the Federal Reserve on stock that banks are required to purchase to participate in the Fed system, for banks with $1 billion or more in assets.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has slammed the proposed Strategic Petroleum Reserve sell-off as the wrongful use of a strategic asset as a “slush fund,” and representatives from the banking industry have come out against the dividend cut, which would drop the rate paid from 6 percent to 1.5 percent. They argue, among other things, that the interest is needed to compensate for otherwise useful capital being tied up.

Extension of Federal Highway Funding

President Obama signed into law an extension of highway funding for two months on May 29, two days before a deadline that would have stopped infrastructure projects in their tracks, reported The Hill. The Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (H.R. 2353) will extend a variety of transportation building and maintenance projects through July. The law continues funding for programs financed by the Highway Trust Fund and ensures that expenditures from and revenue deposits into the fund will not be interrupted, a White House statement said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pointed out that the law is the 33rd short-term funding measure of its kind since 2008, which makes it difficult for states to plan substantial, long-term highway projects, The Hill noted.

The White House has proposed comprehensive transportation infrastructure legislation, the GROW AMERICA ACT, the White House said in a May 19 statement on H.R. 2353. The administration sent a six-year, $478 billion highway bill to Congress in March to address these transportation infrastructure needs, reported The Hill on March 30.

Legislators from both parties acknowledged the need for reliable, long-term funding to preserve and expand surface transportation but also expressed doubts over how to fund a multi-year highway bill. The Hill quoted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee as saying, “Senate Democrats … understand that you cannot have big league economic growth with little league infrastructure.”  Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) warned that he wants to offer people some certainty on the funding issue, but added “… I’m just not sure that we can get that done.” (Credit The Hill).