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Senate Moves First Tranche of Fiscal Year 2019 Spending Bills 

Following action in the House, the Senate moved forward and approved a package of three spending bills (Energy and Water, Military Construction and Legislative Branch) on a vote of 86-5.  The “minibus” (H.R. 5895) provided a vehicle for the Senate to expedite passage of the spending bills.  The action sets the stage for a House-Senate conference to reconcile spending differences.  Notable to the Energy and Water Development portion of H.R. 5895 is the fact that the Senate followed the House’s lead and approved spending levels for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that rejected the Administration’s proposed spending reductions.  This will ensure that spending levels for water resources programs remain at current year levels or, in some cases, receive a slight increase.  Congressional appropriations leaders continue to express confidence that the bill will reach the President’s desk for enactment by October 1, representing a major accomplishment in avoiding a shutdown of programs when fiscal year 2019 begins.  While this positive trend could impact the other remaining nine spending bills, final action on more controversial spending bills, including those that fund the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are unlikely to be enacted until after the November elections.

Senate Passes Farm Bill, Difficult Conference Process Anticipated

In the last action prior to the July 4th recess, the Senate passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (S. 3042) on a vote of 86-11. The Senate agreed to several noncontroversial amendments, including:

  • Requiring the Forest Service to establish a Watershed Condition Framework for National Forest System lands to monitor the condition of watersheds and to identify priority watersheds for the development of restoration action plans and priority projects.
  • Expanding the Good Neighbor Authority, authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, to allow the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to enter into agreements with counties to carry out restoration actions on federal and non-federal lands.
  • Establishing a pilot program for Forest Service to partner with utilities with right-of-way on federal lands to conduct vegetation management projects to reduce the threat of fire.
  • Providing for a six-month extension of the National Flood Insurance Program.

What is Next:  With passage of the Senate Farm Bill, the House and Senate begin what is expected to be a challenging conference process to resolve differences between their respective bills.  With the current farm bill (Agriculture Act of 2014 – P.L. 113-79), expiring on September 30, 2018, it is expected that Congress will need to pass a short-term continuing resolution to allow time for the conference process to move forward.

USEPA Administrator Directs Rewrite of CWA Dredge and Fill Veto Process

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continued to push forward with his goal of reviewing and rewriting the agency’s rules governing the implementation of environmental statutes. Pruitt issued a memorandum (PDF) instructing the Office of Water to initiate a wholesale rewrite of the Office’s rules governing the agency’s authority to issue vetoes on projects that require a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Section 404 permit to allow for the dredging and filling of lands and the disposal of materials.

Under the Clean Water Act, USEPA has the authority under Section 404 (c) to deny or veto a permit if the agency determines the proposed project would impose adverse impacts to receiving waters.  Citing a desire “…to take another step toward returning the agency to its core mission and providing regulatory certainty…” Pruitt’s memorandum proposes to reverse the agency’s use of its veto authority before a permit application is submitted or after a permit has been issued by USACE.  In his justification to reduce the agency’s authority to engage in reviews and issue vetoes, Pruitt cites the instance of the politically charged effort to advance the Pebble Mine project in Alaska.  In that case, USEPA’s regional office sought to impose restrictions on the project’s discharges before a final permit application was submitted.  The agency relied upon filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission to conduct environmental studies.  Pruitt seeks to end such practices through explicit changes to policies and rules that are currently relied upon to make determinations on a project.  To this end, his memorandum sets out a handful of criteria to govern a policy rewrite.  These are to:

  • eliminate any reviews of a project before a permit application is filed with USACE or a State;
  • eliminate the authority to issue a veto after USACE or a State issues a permit;
  • provide USEPA Headquarters with final sign-off on any veto review process sought by USEPA Regional Offices;
  • require USEPA Regional Office to review any final USACE or State environmental assessment or Impact Statement, before publishing a proposed veto determination in the Federal Register; and,
  • require public comment before any final veto determination is issued.

Any final review and rewrite of the Section 404 veto authority will be subject to public comment and review in the coming months.

House Passes Stricter Foreign Investment Legislation

On Tuesday, the House overwhelming supported legislation that modernizes and strengthens the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S (CFIUS).  The House voted 400 – 2 to pass the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (H.R. 5841) that modernizes CFIUS in order to more effectively guard against risks to U.S. national security from “certain types of foreign investment.”  CFIUS is responsible for reviewing foreign investment in the U.S. and ensuring that the investment(s) is not a risk to national security.

In his press release, sponsor of H.R. 5841, Representative Robert Pittenger (R-NC), explained that the bill “will take enormous steps to improve our foreign investment review process to prevent further transfers of military applicable technologies to the Chinese government.”

The Senate’s version of the bill, S. 2098, was reported out of committee last month and awaits consideration on the Senate Floor.  However, the House’s action on H.R. 5841 is expected to prompt Senate floor debate in the coming months.

U.S. House backs tighter foreign investment rules amid China worries – Reuters

Legislative Activity This Week

H.R. 221, Hydrographic Services Improvement Amendments Act. – Rep. Don Young (R-AK).  Passed House on a voice vote.

H.R. 3906, Innovative Stormwater Infrastructure Act of 2018. – Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA).  Reported out of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure as amended by voice vote.

H.R. 6206, Coast Guard Blue Technology Center of Expertise Act. – Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). Reported out of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure by voice vote.

New Legislation

H.R. XX – The National Ocean Policy Act of 2018 – Rep. Jimmy Panetta – Would make permanent a national and regional framework for the continued coordination of federal, state, and local stakeholders concerning marine management decision.

S. 3121 – Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) – A bill to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2014 to require maximum open and free competition in procurement for projects receiving assistance under those Acts, and for other purposes.

Reports and Regulation  

Interview with New USEPA Region 9 Leader  – KQED Interview with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) new Region 9 Chief, Mike Stoker.  Stoker answers questions about environmental issues in California, his appointment process, and climate change.

Congress Next Week

Both chambers will be away for the Fourth of July Recess.

Happy 4th of July !