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Congress Convenes with Focus on Reopening Federal Agencies

The 116th Congress convened January 3 and voted to elect Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as Speaker of the House.  This action formalized her return to the Constitutional Office.  Pelosi’s election marks the first time since 1955 that a Member who previously served as Speaker returned to the Speaker’s office.  Following the election and swearing-in of Members at-large, the House approved the governing rules for the new Congress and then turned its attention to the issues of resolving the shut-down of approximately twenty-five percent of the federal government and the 800,000 furloughed employees who are caught in the shutdown.

With firm control of the House, the Democrat majority moved two bills to reopen the federal government.  The first would fund the governmental agencies, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S Department of the Interior for the remainder of fiscal year 2019. The second offered up a bifurcated solution with the Department of Homeland Security funded until February 8 and the remaining agencies funded under a year-long stopgap funding bill.  Both approaches did not include funding for the Administration’s border wall and, consequently, the legislation hit a proverbial wall in the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated that bills without border wall funding would not be considered.  As a result, it appears that the partial government shutdown could continue for the next couple of weeks.

However, in a sign of limited but important shifts in the ongoing debate, a handful of Republican Senators are demanding that the government reopen and that negotiations on a wall continue in an environment that is solely dedicated to resolving this dispute.  In the House, five Republican Members voted with the Democratic approach to reopening the government.  In both instances, the votes, though limited in number, may be interpreted that the new Congress might witness increased bipartisanship to break logjams.

House Democrats Establish Ground Rules for 116th Congress

With Democrats taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the first orders of business is to consider passage of a rules package that establishes the Rules of the 116th Congress.  Approved by a vote of 234-197, the rules package includes several changes designed to elevate Democrat priorities and shape how the House conducts business.  Key provisions include:

  • Creates a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. (The Select Committee will be chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL).
  • Creates a Select Committee on Modernization of Congress to “modernize and improve” the way Congress operates.
  • Establishes new ethics rules that prohibit lawmakers and aides from sitting on corporate boards and a new requirement for annual ethics training for all lawmakers.
  • Requires legislative text to be published online a full 72 hours before a scheduled vote.
  • Requires that the U.S. General Accounting Office assess the cost to the federal government of any transfer of federally held lands to state governments and localities.
  • Amends rules to extend bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and to allow religious headwear to be worn in the House chamber.
  • Ends dynamic scoring, which provides an estimate of the effect of tax changes on jobs, wages, investment, federal revenue, and the overall size of the economy.
  • Reinstates PAY-GO, which requires new spending or tax changes not to add to the federal debt.
  • Reinstates the Gephardt Rule, which makes debt-ceiling increases automatic each time that Congress passes a budget that exceeds that limit.
  • Creates a new “Consensus Calendar” provides path for overruling leadership: must consider one bill per week if backed by two-thirds.
  • Removes term limits for committee chairs as well as members of the Committee on the Budget.
  • Renames the Committee on Education and Workforce as the Committee on Education and Labor.
  • Renames the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as the Committee on Oversight and Reform.
  • Requires members to resign from committees while under indictment. (May immediately impact sitting members Reps. Chris Collins [R-NY] and Duncan Hunter [R-CA).

116th Congressional Committee News

With a new Congress, comes new committee membership and policy focuses.  Below is this week’s news about committee changes in the 116th Congress.

Focus for House Committees in New Congress

  • Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), incoming Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, stated he intends to have infrastructure legislation ready by summertime. Although early in the development process, DeFazio stated the legislation is expected to include provisions addressing wastewater and drinking water; boosting support for climate-resiliency programs; and, authorization for the U.S. Department of Treasury to issue 30-year Invest in America Bonds to fund infrastructure projects.
  • The new Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Frank Pallone (D-NJ) announced that the focus of the committee’s first hearing of the new Congress will be on the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. A date for the hearing has not yet been scheduled.

New Committee Leadership in the House

  • The Democratic Caucus elected Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) to be the Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The committee has jurisdiction over the nation’s water resources infrastructure policy.
  • The Democratic Caucus selected Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS) to be Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. Thompson’s selection must be approved by the full Democratic Caucus.
  • The House Committee on Appropriations website has posted the subcommittees’ Chair-designates. As of now the positions are not official and will need approval by the Democratic Caucus. 

New Republican Members Added to Key Environmental Senate Committees

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced this week new membership for the Committee on Environment and Public Works and Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  The new assignments must be approved by the Republican Conference.  Votes are expected next week.  Below are the new additions.

The Committee on Environment and Public Works will welcome Republican Freshmen Senators Mike Braun (R-IN) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND).  The two freshmen are replacing Senators Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Jerry Moran (R-KS).

The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will have Freshman Republican Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) join the committee, replacing vacant seats left by departing Senators Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) and Rob Portman (R-OH).  The vacant seat left by retired Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) will not be filled by a new Senator.  This shrinks the republican roster on the committee from 12 to 11.

Priorities Outlined for House Committee on Agriculture

House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Colin Peterson (D-MN) outlined priorities for the House Committee on Agriculture for the 116th Congress.  Peterson stated that subcommittee chairmanships and committee assignments are expected to be announced before the end of January.  Committee hearings are expected to focus on:

  • Implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill (Conservation/Nutrition/Agriculture Production)
  • Implementation of the Renewable Fuels Standard
  • Review of the administration’s rulemaking on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work-requirement waivers
  • Oversight of Forest Service management of federal forest lands
  • Review of trade agreements and tariffs impacting agricultural producers

Senate Confirms Agency Nominees

This week, the Senate confirmed a number of agency nominees:

  • Alexandra Dunn, Assistant Administrator, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention
  • Mary Neumayr, Chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality
  • Kelvin Droegemeier, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Teri Donaldson, Inspector General, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Dan Simmons, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
  • William McIntosh, Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

USEPA To Weigh Into Groundwater Legal Case

In a court filing published this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated that the agency will weigh into the legal battle concerning the case of Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui.  The case centered upon whether the county’s wastewater treatment utility was liable under the Clean Water Act (CWA) for, indirectly, discharging treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean via groundwater and whether this type of discharge requires a permit under CWA.  The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, last year, that the utility was liable for such a discharge and thus a permit was required.  Following the Ninth Circuit, the case has continued to cause legal controversy, resulting in a petition being filed at the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

Last year, USEPA requested comment on the discharge issue and whether a permit is necessary.  In this week’s filing, it is stated that USEPA is expected to take further action in the next several weeks.  The SCOTUS petition remains pending and it is unclear whether the high court will take up the case.

Reports and Regulation

Poll on What Americans Want the 116th Congress to Prioritize – POLITICO-Harvard poll on what Americans view as “extremely important” priorities for the new Congress.  Includes infrastructure spending as a top priority.