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Lubricating the Gridlock of Washington Policymaking Gears

Congress’s return to work witnessed another head spinning series of events that might just signal at least a temporary relaxation of polarizing legislative stand-offs.  The decision of the president to package an agreement with congressional Democrats to extend federal spending and suspend the debt ceiling until December took the threat of fiscal upheaval off the table; if only until December. The agreement created an outline of how the White House might move forward with other legislative priorities that political handicappers had all but written off for at least this session of Congress.  To be sure, the challenges of a limited congressional calendar and the factionalized nature of the current congressional composition could conspire to block any other progress until next year.  Nonetheless, the prospect for action or at least opening efforts on both political parties and the White House’s part seem to have increased with the fiscal agreement of the past week.

From a policy perspective, the Administration’s priorities are daunting, given the tight legislative calendar.  The coming weeks could see the White House and congressional leaders unveiling proposals to address tax cuts or tax reform, rewrite immigrations laws, infrastructure assistance, military funding, and developing a comprehensive fiscal year 2018 spending package and revisions to the debt ceiling limit to eliminate its use as a fiscal hammer to nail down budget agreements.

House Approves Massive Appropriations Package

On September 14, after debating more than 450 amendments, the House approved a long-term FY 2018 appropriations measure that includes all twelve spending bills. The $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill, Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act (H.R. 3354), was approved on a vote of 211-198.  House passage marks the first time, since 2009, that all twelve spending bills were passed prior to the end of the fiscal year (September 30).  As reported last week, an amendment was agreed upon to provide USEPA’s Clean Water SRF Program with an additional $250 million restoring the SRF to FY 2017 levels.

Approval last week of a three-month funding extension, through December 8, allows for the Senate to move its spending bills and then meet with the House to reconcile differences.  H.R. 3354, approved in the House, contains policy riders blocking implementation of the Affordable Care Act, defunding Planned Parenthood, withdraw of the Waters of the United States rule, and other provisions that Senate Democrats oppose, making a final budget agreement a still difficult task.  Below is a summary of each House-passed spending bill:

Agriculture

Commerce/Justice/Science

Department of Defense

Energy and Water

Financial Services

Interior/Environment

Labor/Health and Human Services/Education

Legislative Branch

Military Construction and Veterans Affairs

State and Foreign Operations

Transportation/Housing and Urban Development

Congress and Administration Call for Increased Forest Management to Reduce Threat of Catastrophic Wildfire

While the nation has been focused on the immensity of the storm and flood damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Western state officials and federal resource agencies continue to grapple with responding to severe wildfires.  This fire season, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior have expended $2.1 billion fighting over 47,000 wildfires that have burned more than 8 million acres.  The loss of life, economic and environmental impact of these wildfires ignited a renewed congress and the Administration interest to address both the cost of wildfire suppression and need for management reforms.

This week, Secretary Zinke issued an internal directive to the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to be more proactive in fuel reduction management and pre-suppression efforts to reduce the intensity and threat of wildfires. Zinke is working closely with Agriculture Secretary Perdue to implement approaches to mitigate wildland fires. Secretary Zinke’s memo directs program officials to “do everything we can to address the steady accumulation of fuels on our Nation’s public lands and the resulting increased threats from catastrophic wildfires.”

Senate Action Announced: Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) has announced a hearing on September 27 on two bills designed to expedite the U.S. Forest Service’s process for carrying out wildfire prevention activities:

S.605 – Litigation Relief for Forest Management Projects Act – Senator Daines (R-MT)

S.1731 – Forest Management Improvement Act of 2017 – Senator Thune (R-SD)

Administration Announces First Steps to Expedite Project Completion

On September 14, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published a Federal Register, Initial List of Actions To Enhance and Modernize the Federal Environmental Review and Authorization Process, outlining initial steps to expedite and streamline environmental reviews and permit approvals.  Executive Order 13807 directs federal agencies to identify steps to complete environmental reviews within 2 years and issue permits within 90 days.  The CEQ notice identifies the following initial actions:

  • Develop, with the Office of Management and Budget, and in consultation with the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (Permitting Council), a framework for implementing “One Federal Decision”;
  • Coordinate with the Permitting Council, Department of Transportation, and the Army Corps of Engineers, with regard to projects that may qualify as high- priority infrastructure projects pursuant to Executive Order 13766 of January 24, 2017;
  • Review existing CEQ regulations implementing the procedural provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to identify changes needed to update and clarify those regulations;
  • Issue additional guidance as may be necessary, including through a NEPA practitioners’ handbook, to simplify and accelerate the NEPA process; and
  • Form and lead an interagency working group to review agency regulations and policies to identify impediments to the efficient and effective processing of environmental reviews and permitting decisions.

National Defense Authorization Legislation Spurs Debate on Buy America Amendments

This week, during a Senate Democrat Press Conference, Democratic Leader Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) highlighted proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2018 (H.R. 2810) seeking to amend Buy America rules that impact military and defense activities. Debate on NDAA will resume next week on the Senate floor.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced amendments to ensure that the Department of Defense (DoD) complies with the Buy America purchasing requirements.  The amendments propose to:

  • Close a loophole that allows Buy American requirements not to apply when a product is purchased for overseas DoD use;
  • Require annual reports to Congress outlining the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on foreign-made goods;
  • Require the Government Accountability Office to review Buy America training practices to ensure better contracting personnel performance compliance with current law; and
  • Require DoD to create a partnership with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership to identify small and medium-sized manufacturers that could provide products that comply with Buy America standards.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s (D-WI) amendment, Supporting America’s Defense Workers Act, would strike language in the bill that would impose a sunset provision requiring that critical components (e.g. valves, machine tools, propellers, propellers, etc.) be supplied by companies qualified under the National Technology and Industrial Base.

House Committee Begins Action on Endangered Species Act Legislation

On September 12, the House Committee on Natural Resources kicked-off consideration of a set of bills to reform the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  However, due to scheduling conflicts,the Committee was only able to consider the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act (H.R. 3668). The Committee passed H.R. 3668, which would expand hunting, fishing and recreational shooting activities on federal lands.  The Committee will resume consideration of the following bills next week:

  • The Saving America’s Endangered Species (SAVES) Act (R. 2603) would eliminate ESA’s treatment of non-native species as endangered or threatened and removes duplicative Captive-Bred Wildlife permit requirements for captive endangered or threatened nonnative species, and allows for easier selling and transfer of species across state lines.
  • The State, Tribal and Local Species Transparency and Recovery Act (R. 1274) would require the Department of the Interior or Department of Commerce to provide states with the data used to make a listing.  Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA) offered an amendment to H.R. 1274 to require public disclosure of the data used for the listings through the internet, unless an affected State determined that the public disclosure would violate a state’s personal information protection laws.
  • The Listing Reform Act (R. 717) would amend the petition consideration process to allow for petition prioritization in ways other than a first in time basis.
  • The Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act (R. 3131) would amend the ESA to replace current standards of awarding court costs, attorney fees, and citizen suits in the federal judicial code for the prevailing party.

Hearings Next Week

September 20

Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works – Hearing on USEPA Office of Water Nominee David Ross