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Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Strategy Emerges

With little more than three months to finalize a Fiscal Year 2018 budget, House and Senate spending committees have begun the process of developing the twelve spending bills with the hope of passing bills by September 30 to avoid a governmental shutdown.  This appears to be an aspirational goal as most budget leaders indicate that, in the absence of a final budget resolution dictating overall spending levels, the best outcome for Congress is an omnibus spending bill that cobble together all the spending bills and avoid multiple votes with the threat of filibusters or vetoes.  In the House the hearing process on proposed agency budgets this week began in earnest, following the Administration’s transmittal of a proposed budget in May.  That transmittal included $60 billion in cuts to domestic spending programs that translated into upwards of 30% program reductions for many federal agency budgets.  Most congressional Members that must make spending decisions have intimated that such cuts are unrealistic.  The stakes are high, because without an agreement, the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration would return in force impacting all federal domestic and defense programs with at least a 10% reduction and leaving no stakeholder satisfied.

Complicating the development of a FY 2018 budget agreement is the need to lift the debt ceiling that limits the ability of the government to issue debt.  According to the Speaker of the House, one approach under consideration is to combine the debt limit increase and FY 2018 spending bills and force House passage before August when the government’s authority to issue debt is expected to be exhausted.  In turn, the Senate would then be forced to act on the package or face the potential of a governmental default on debt service payments.  This approach might lose support from Members who would oppose proposed program budget cuts envisioned by budget hawks.  Instead, it is more likely that a “clean” debt limit extension would be brought up for a vote before the August Recess to allow bipartisan support.  Assuming that this happens, then attention would shift to an omnibus spending measure in September that would avoid the need to impose sequestration cuts and moderate the draconian cuts sought in the President’s budget request. |

House Committee on Energy and Commerce Approves Energy Related Bills

On June 7, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce moved a series of bills to improve energy efficiency.  The action represents significant progress toward enactment of measures to enhance the use of energy and water efficient technologies within the federal government and to develop permit streamlining for hydropower projects.

Under the Hydropower Permit Extension Act (H.R. 2274), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be authorized to extend a permit term for a hydropower project from the current three years to a maximum term of eight years.  The legislation addresses the disconnect between existing permit terms and construction schedule demands of such projects.  The committee also approved the Energy Savings Through Public-Private Partnerships Act (H.R. 723). This bill proposes to enhance the ability of federal agencies to implement contracts to develop energy and water conservation programs.  Under the bill, agencies would be allowed to sell or transfer energy credit savings from such conservation efforts and to use revenues to fund contracts for energy and water conservation programs.  A Senate companion bill, S. 239, has received Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and is pending before the Senate for a floor vote.  Assuming congressional passage, the measure would likely be signed into law and, upon enactment, enhance programs to support the implementation of new energy and water efficiency technologies throughout the federal bureaucracy.

Senate Committee Approves Interior, Energy and FERC Nominees

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved four nominations this week that would put into place key political appointees within the bureaucracy.  David Bernhardt received bipartisan support to be Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Dan Brouillette was supported to be Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy, and Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson were recommended to become Commissioners to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  Committee staff indicate that the expectation is the Senate will vote on the nominations prior to the July 4th recess.

USEPA Appointment to Head Office of Enforcement Heads to Senate for Confirmation Hearing

Susan Bodine, President Trump’s nominee to head USEPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, is expected to receive a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works confirmation hearing on June 13.  Bodine currently serves as the committee’s Chief Counsel.  Prior to this role, she served on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.  Subsequent to this role, she served as the Assistant Administrator for USEPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response during President George W. Bush’s Administration.  If confirmed, Bodine would be responsible for management of agency’s efforts to enforce against violations of the nation’s environmental policies including threats to water and air.

Senate Committee Approves Interior, Energy and FERC Nominees

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved four nominations: David Bernhardt to be deputy Interior secretary; Dan Brouillette to be deputy Energy secretary; Neil Chatterjee to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and Robert Powelson to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  A floor vote is expected prior to the July 4th recess.

Secretary Zinke Testifies on President’s FY 2018 Budget

On June 8, the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, testified before the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Interior on the Department’ s FY 2018 budget request. Chairman Ken Calvert opened the review, stating that the budget request for the Department proposes $10.6 billion in discretionary funding, representing a 13% reduction.  Calvert expressed that program fundings may have been reduced or eliminated without due consideration.  He cited as an example of this concern the proposed elimination of a U.S. Geological Survey program to provide for an earthquake early warning system.  Ranking Member Betty McCollum (D-MN), criticized the proposed cuts and stated that she would not vote for a department budget that fell below current year program spending levels.

In response to subcommittee members’ views, Secretary Zinke stated that he sees the President’s budget as a starting point for discussions over funding priorities.  He emphasized that “this is what a balanced budget looks like.”  Zinke suggested that the budget does encourage innovation, supports private-public partnerships and focuses on the core mission of the Department of the Interior.

Senate Hearing on Administration’s U.S. Forest Service FY 2018 Budget Request

On June 7, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell faced bi-partisan criticism over the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request.  The budget request for the USFS of $4.7 billion is $880 million less than the current year spending level.

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) highlighted that the budget request for the wildland fire program fails to include a wildfire cap adjustment or any type of “fix” for fire borrowing that has been criticized for diminishing resources for other USFS programs.  Murkowski stated that the lack of funding certainty and discipline has been harmful to the health national forests and expressed her priority to address these issues during the current budget cycle. Ranking Member Tom Udall (D-NM), stated he was very disappointed in the Administration’s budget as it pertains to forest management and specifically the zeroing out of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLR).

Tidwell’s testimony defended the budget request as a good investment for the public.  Tidwell spent most of his time responding to questions. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) stated that, in his view, “this budget is a wreck.”  Tester sounded alarm over proposed cuts to essential infrastructure programs within USFS. Tidwell responded that cuts to roads and other infrastructure improvement needs would be addressed under the Administration’s infrastructure plan. Tidwell was unable to provide specific assistance expected to be part of the plan that would support USFS future infrastructure needs.

Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), secured a commitment from Tidwell in support of Daines’s legislation,  S.605.  S. 605 would clarify that USFS and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are not required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when critical habitat is newly designated or a species is listed. (see: Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service)

Wildfire Funding Legislation Introduced and Forest Management Bill Readied

On June 8, Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) introduced the Wildfire Disaster Act.  The bill is similar to his legislation introduced during the past 114th Congress (H.R. 167).  That bill generated strong bi-partisan support and 151 co-sponsors.  The newly introduced legislation is expected to receive action during the 115th Congress and as a focus on managing forestry needs continues to grow.

The legislation includes the following provisions:

  • Treat catastrophic wildfires similar to other natural disasters for purposes of assistance;
  • Require that wildland firefighting costs, (70% of wildfire suppression costs), would continue to be funded through the appropriations process; and
  • Authorize USFS and USDOI firefighting budget cap needs to be adjusted to account for the growing demand for suppression funding under the Budget Control Act.

Press Release: Simpson and Schrader Reintroduce Wildfire Disaster Funding Act

House Hearing on Forest Health and Litigation

The House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands held an oversight hearing on Burdensome Litigation and Federal Bureaucratic Roadblocks to Manage our Nation’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests this week.  The hearing was the second in a series examining forest health and focused on litigation impacts on the ability to manage efficiently and effectively federal forest lands.  Lyle Laverty, President, The Laverty Group, Colorado; Lawson Fite, General Counsel, American Forest Resource Council; Bruce Hallin, Director, Water Supply Salt River Project, Arizona; and Susan Jane Brown, Staff Attorney, Western Environmental Law Center provided testimony.

At the close of the hearing, Chairman Tom McClintock (R-CA) announced that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing on June 15 to discuss the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 – Discussion Draft (Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark).  Similar to legislation introduced during the 114th Congress, the legislation is expected to authorize expedited management activities related to managing forests, including environmental assessments and harvesting of salvage timber after natural disasters. The bill is expected to support stewardship contracting efforts and promote arbitration to resolve conflicts related to forest management activities.  Subcommittee staff indicate approval of the legislation in late June is a priority for the subcommittee with the hope to report floor debate and a vote prior to the August recess.

USEPA Undertaking Final Reviews of Project Applications under WIFIA

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed and provided a map showing the location of the projects where a Letter of Interest has been submitted under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA).  In response to the agency’s Notice of Funding Availability, 43 projects from prospective borrowers for water infrastructure, totaling $6 billion, were submitted.  California led the way with twenty project requests representing 47% of the total requests submitted.  The agency hopes to make a final decision in July on which projects to approve for moving into project funding.

Zinke Names Fish and Wildlife Deputy

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today appointed Greg Sheehan, the former director of Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, to the newly created position of deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sheehan will start at the agency in mid-June and will serve as FWS acting director until a new director is confirmed.

White House Infrastructure Week, Heavy on Principles, Light on Details

On Friday, President Trump spoke at the U.S. Department of the Transportation (USDOT) where he pledged “massive permit reform’ to expedite federal approvals  of highways and other infrastructure projects.   At the event, Trump announced a new initiative to make the federal permitting process more efficient. Under the initiative, the Council on Environmental Quality that oversees coordination of policies across the federal government is expected to be tasked with identifying inefficiencies in federal permitting of projects and to make recommendations on how to bring about enhanced approvals of permits that will expedite project construction.  Given the many statutory obligations associated with permitting, such as the length of a permit term, it is unclear whether recommendations would require Congress to pass legislative changes to existing laws such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

President Trump’s Plan to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure

New Legislation

H.R.2786 (Rep. Richard Hudson R-NC) – To amend the Federal Power Act with respect to the criteria and process to qualify as a qualifying conduit hydropower facility.

Upcoming Hearings

June 13

Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works – Hearing on Susan Bodine for assistant administrator for enforcement at EPA

Senate Energy and Natural Resources – Hearing on federal and state permitting process

House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry – Hearing  on Small Watershed Infrastructure: Continuing the Mission, Building upon Success

June 14

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on water, power bills

June 15

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Forest Service budget

House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies – USEPA Budget – Scheduled to appear: Scott Pruitt, Administrator

House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Transportation – Department of Transportation – Budget Hearing – Scheduled to appear: Elaine Chao, Secretary