FY 2018 Funding, Debt Ceiling, and Harvey Relief
After returning from August Recess last week, Congressional leaders got right to work on many of their September priorities. In addition to raising the debt ceiling and passing a government spending bill by September 29, Congress was also faced with the task of passing a spending package for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. There was a rush to pass relief funds last week, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) disaster-relief fund was set to run out of money last Friday.
The House voted 419-3 last Wednesday to allocate $7.85 billion to provide flood-related relief to tens of thousands of homeowners in Texas and other parts of the Gulf Coast.
Shortly after the House vote, during an Oval Office meeting, President Trump accepted a proposal by Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to combine a larger Hurricane Harvey relief measure with a three-month suspension of the debt limit and a three-month continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government until December 8.
By late Wednesday, Senate Republicans released a bill (H.R. 601) that mirrored the Schumer-Pelosi proposal: A debt ceiling extension, a CR through December 8 including an extension of the U.S. flood insurance program, and a near doubling of disaster funding for Hurricane Harvey victims. The additional funding included in this legislation would go toward the Community Development Block Grant program to address housing needs in disaster zones.
The Senate passed H.R. 601 Thursday by a vote of 80-17, despite the objections of many Republicans who wanted the debt ceiling extension to continue into next year. The House followed suit, passing the legislation Friday morning by a vote of 316-90 (again, all dissenting votes were Republicans). Congressional leaders did not outline any plans for longer-term debt limit legislation when the current short-term extension expires.
Postponing the spending deadline could lead to a major fight in December over a number of crucial issues: government funding, the debt ceiling, the president’s proposed border wall with Mexico, and the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (see below). Democrats, who will have political leverage in December as their votes are needed in the Senate to pass debt ceiling legislation, are likely to push for increases in domestic spending in exchange for increases in military spending, which is a priority for President Trump. Democrats may also use this opportunity to push for legislation to protect and extend DACA.
The House will continue discussions this week regarding an eight-bill spending package (otherwise known as “Omnibus”) for FY 18. Funding for the remaining agencies in this week’s package would go toward the departments of Interior, Justice, Commerce, Homeland, Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State and Treasury. More than 140 amendments offered by members of both parties have not yet been considered and are expected to take up hours of floor time. Debate on these amendments will hopefully help set up negotiations for a long-term omnibus spending measure in December.
Last Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration will end the DACA program. The program had protected about 800,000 immigrants, known as "Dreamers," who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents from deportation.
"The Department of Justice has advised Homeland Security it should begin an orderly and lawful wind-down, including the cancelation of the memo that authorized this program," Sessions said in a press conference. But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also announced plans to continue renewing applications for Dreamers whose DACA status expires during the next six months so Congress can enact legislation to protect those individuals.
If Congress does not pass a bill in the next six months that creates a legal path for Dreamers, 300,000 will start losing protective status in 2018, and another 320,000 would lose their protection between January and August 2019.
Affordable Care Act/Health Care Developments
Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) plan to make a final push to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) this week by introducing legislation to turn the ACA's insurance subsidies and Medicaid funds into a block grant program. The senators have worked to craft and sell their legislation first on a local level to governors and insurance commissioners, and many Republican governors may support the push.
Cassidy and Graham are working with Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price this week to finalize details and garner support among their Senate colleagues. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a critical “no” vote on an earlier ACA repeal bill (H.R. 1628), said he supports the Graham-Cassidy proposal. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has told the bill sponsors that “if we get 50 votes we will hold a vote.” Under that scenario, Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote. President Donald Trump has signaled he would sign the repeal.
However, the bill’s future is uncertain, as it will face the same political hurdles that held earlier proposals back and will still need a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score, which can take weeks. The timing of the CBO score may render the bill untenable, as it will need to reach the Senate floor before the end of September so that Senate Republicans can use FY 2017 reconciliation instructions to pass it (only requiring 50 votes).
Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and Patty Murray (D-WA) are simultaneously drafting bipartisan legislation designed to stabilize the individual health insurance markets created by the ACA. This legislation would appropriate payments to insurers meant to keep premiums down for low-income beneficiaries for at least one year. In addition, Medicaid managed care plans, advocates, and hospitals have been calling for urgent action to address CHIP reauthorization, which covers nearly 9 million children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private insurance.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is requiring that federal agencies, including USDA, submit by next Monday, September 18 their plans to regulate and deregulate in the year ahead. Agencies also are being asked to fill out new worksheets to show compliance with Executive Order 13,771, which requires them to eliminate two regulations for every one issued and offset the cost of each new regulation. The new worksheets submitted to OMB will clearly identify deregulatory actions, but will not be made public.
USDA Chief Scientist Nomination
An additional September priority for the Trump administration is to continue filling vacant political appointee slots within various federal agencies, including USDA. On such slot includes Chief Scientist of USDA. The Chief Scientist is in charge of overseeing USDA’s $3 billion research budget, which funds, among other things, Economic Research Service (ERS) studies that evaluate WIC.
The current nominee, Sam Clovis, President Trump’s former Iowa campaign manager, is a former fighter pilot who has taught economics and hosts a conservative talk show. Many people in the agricultural science, public health, and nutrition communities are very concerned about this nomination, as Clovis is not a scientist and is an outspoken critic of scientific studies linking human activity to climate change. Other causes for concern include that Clovis used to run a blog on which he wrote racially charged posts, once related being gay with pedophilia, and questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in the US.
Clovis does have powerful allies, including Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will vote to confirm Clovis before a Senate floor vote.
Democrats, however, are signaling they will try to make it difficult to confirm Clovis. The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), points to a provision in the law that specifically requires that chief scientist nominees be chosen from "among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education or economics…In my judgment, I don't see how in the world he meets the requirements of the law," Stabenow says. At least two other Democratic senators, Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), also oppose the nomination, even as two dozen farm and commodity groups have signaled their support for Clovis.
Clovis' confirmation hearing before the Senate agriculture committee has not been scheduled, but could happen as early as this month.