Capitol to Capitol | Feb. 13, 2017

2/17/2017

Capitol to Capitol

Mr. Strange Comes to Washington

Soon after Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed by the Senate as Attorney General of the United States on Wednesday, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley nominated Luther Strange, the state's Attorney General, to fill Sessions' vacant seat. And just hours after his nomination, Mr. Strange was sworn in on Thursday at the Capitol and became the 51st Senator in the state's history. Senator Strange will serve as the interim senator from Alabama until a special election to fill the seat for the remainder of Session's term, which ends in January of 2021, is held in November of 2018.

Budget and Spending Deadlines Loom on the Horizon

The White House failed to submit its fiscal year 2018 budget to Congress by the statutorily required deadline, the first Monday in February. Presidents, however, rarely meet that goal, especially in their first year. President Barack Obama, for instance, did not submit his first budget overview to congress until Feb. 26, 2009. However, more important deadlines are quickly approaching, namely March 15, when the federal debt ceiling will be reinstated and the Treasury Department will no longer be able to borrow money to pay its bills. Another key date is April 28, when the current federal spending measure expires.

While the debt ceiling deadline comes first on the calendar, the debate, which is expected to be heated, will most likely occur after the appropriations debate in April. This is because the Treasury Department is able to employ tools, known as extraordinary measures, that will allow the government to meet all of its obligations, without borrowing money, until some point in the summer. If the debt ceiling is not raised before the Treasury exhausts its options, however, the government will default on its spending obligations.

As raising the debt ceiling and passing a new appropriations bill will necessitate congressional action, expect Democrats, especially in the Senate, to use their leverage to extract some policy objectives. Democrats have not signaled their plans, but if they take the offensive and filibuster legislation to keep the government open, the first budget showdown of the 115th Congress could occur at the end of April.

NCSL Contacts: Max Behlke, Jake Lestock

D.Y.K.? You can find a top secret FBI interrogation manual at the Library of Congress (LOC). For some odd reason, the FBI person who wrote it decided to apply for a copyright and by law, anything that is copyrighted must be made available to anyone with a LOC library card who wants to read it. 

Prospects of Comprehensive Tax Reform Fade with Each Week

Following a week where prominent Republicans, including Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), expressed reservations over the controversial border adjustable provision that is the centerpiece of the House Republican Tax Reform Plan, additional Republicans voiced their skepticism for the proposal. Discussing his concerns, Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the former head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said that border adjustability "is a new tax – it's a brand new revenue stream." He went on to say that he is "all for lowering the corporate rate" and that he is "all for making our tax code simpler, flatter, fairer, better, but do we really need a whole new revenue stream?"

In the Senate, Republican Senators David Perdue (Ga.) and Mike Rounds (S.D.) both expressed opposition to the House proposal, at least as it is currently drafted. Rounds is concerned about border adjustability's potential effects on farmers and ranchers as well as on consumers who've "benefited from inexpensive imports." Perdue, a former retail executive, denounced a border adjustable business tax that he said it will drive up prices for consumers. He circulated a letter on the Hill that calls the House plan "a bad idea" and that it will "hammer consumer confidence and lower overall demand, thus putting downward pressure on jobs."

With all that being said, last Thursday, President Donald Trump hinted that a draft tax reform plan could be unveiled in the coming weeks. When asked about the issue, he said that a plan is "coming along very well. We're way ahead of schedule, I believe, and we're going to be announcing something, I would say, over the next two or three weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax." However, the president did not elaborate on the details of his proposal.

It was unclear whether the White House would be rolling out a new plan or packaging Trump's already proposed outline with his first budget.

NCSL Contacts: Max Behlke, Jake Lestock

Modernizing our Nation's Infrastructure

As we await details from the administration and Congress as to what an infrastructure funding package will include, the committees of jurisdiction in both the House and Senate began work on what it would take to modernize the nation's existing infrastructure.

On Feb. 1, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first hearing of the 115th Congress, focused on building a 21st century American infrastructure. The hearing featured witnesses from FedEx, Cargill, BMW and Vermeer, in addition to a representative from the AFL-CIO. The witnesses came from some of the nation's largest corporate users of transportation networks and infrastructure, from freight rail to interstate, and from ports and inland waterways to air traffic. House witnesses spoke to what they believe the nation's infrastructure needs are, including investment in harbors, locks and dams; continued maintenance and repair of the nation's interstate system for autonomous vehicle compatibility; and the air traffic control system. While their infrastructure priorities varied, they agreed that while public private partnerships (P3s) would have a role in funding infrastructure projects, they are unlikely to be the primary funder.

A week after that hearing, on Feb. 8, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee held a hearing—Oversight: Modernizing our Nation's Infrastructure—that focused on financing techniques, the need for a broad investment strategy, and how to increase federal efficiency in investment with an emphasis on the needs of rural America. Unlike the hearing in the House, the panel was composed of officials from state departments of transportation, natural resources, and other local level officials. Senate witnesses explained that implementation of P3s in rural America would prove to be difficult, given that even if they were supplemented by federal tax credits, their cost-per-capita would still be too high in rural states. The witnesses discussed the downsides of loans and argued for increased federal grant funding, saying affordability must be the primary factor for considering projects in rural areas. Witnesses also indicated a need for greater access to broadband, increased surface transportation funding, and water infrastructure funding and financing.

These initial hearings will help lay a framework for the development of an infrastructure funding package, although details on timing and what will and won't be included are not yet known. For access to testimonies and to listen to the webcast of the hearings click here for the House, and here for the Senate.

NCSL Contacts: Ben Husch, Kristen Hildreth

D.Y.K.? Grover Cleveland was the only president to officially serve as an executioner (hangman). As the sheriff of Erie County, New York, he performed the role on multiple executions and earned the nickname "Buffalo Hangman." 

House Passes Resolutions That Will Block Education Regulations

H.J. Res. 58, sponsored by Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee Chairman Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), passed the House on Tuesday, Feb. 7, and will now move over to Senate for consideration. The measure, which is a resolution of disapproval, would block U.S. Department of Education regulations regarding institutions of teacher preparation that were finalized in October 2016. NCSL sent a letter in support of the resolution to the subcommittee last week and had previously called on the department to withdraw both the proposed rule and a subsequent reopening of the proposed rule. H. J. Res. 57, introduced by Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), also passed the House on Tuesday. The resolution blocks a regulation implementing accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

NCSL Contacts: Lee Posey, Lucia Bragg

President Signs Three Criminal Justice Executive Orders

Trump signed three new executive orders that were focused on criminal justice last week that will establish a task force on crime reduction and public safety, promote the safety of state, local, tribal and federal law enforcement, and prioritize the prosecution and enforcement of federal laws against transnational criminal organizations.

NCSL Contacts: Susan Frederick, Danielle Dean

President Signs Order to Curtail Dodd-Frank Financial Regulations

On Friday, Feb. 3, Trump signed an executive order that began the process of rolling back financial regulations that were implemented under one of Obama's signature legislative initiatives, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Before signing the order, the president said that the regulations had overly regulated the financial industry and had limited the ability of banks to lend money to businesses. However, progressives, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D), criticized the order for reducing consumer protections and for relaxing the rules that were put into place after the Great Recession. The order is more signal than substance, as the president's power to change the regulations is limited since they are implemented by independent agencies that do not report to the White House. Still, the president is in the process of naming nominees to key regulatory posts and his executive order will likely boost congressional efforts to revise the 2010 landmark law.

NCSL Contact: Danielle Jarchow

Three State Legislative Officers to Serve On FCC Advisory Board

State Senator Deb Peters (R-S.D.), Representative Angelo Puppolo Jr. (D-Mass.) and Representative Jason Saine (R-N.C.) were recently tapped to serve on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC). All three state legislative members are active with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and serve on NCSL's Communications, Financial Services and Interstate Commerce Committee.

The IAC is an advisory body to the FCC with a purpose of providing guidance on telecommunications policy that has an impact at the state, local and tribal government levels. The IAC is composed of 15 state, local, and tribal government members with experience in telecommunications matters.

NCSL Contact: Danielle Jarchow

D.Y.K.?  Before each meeting of the Roman Senate, the magistrate who was to preside over the body offered a sacrifice to the Gods before he entered the Senate house. If the auspices were not favorable, or not rightly taken, the business was deferred to another day. 

Trump’s Cabinet

Confirmations: Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education on Tuesday after Vice President Mike Pence cast his first tie breaking vote in the U.S. Senate, which was also the first time in history that the vice president cast the deciding vote on a Cabinet nominee. Every Democratic senator, including the chamber's two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats, voted against the nominee. They were joined by two Republicans, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), which is why Pence's vote was ultimately needed. The vote followed an all-night vigil on the floor by Senate Democrats, who voiced their opposition to DeVos' nomination and hoped to attract a third Republican defection. In his eight years in office, former Vice President Joe Biden never had to cast a tie breaking vote.

On Wednesday, after another 30 hours of debate, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was confirmed as the Attorney General by a vote of 52-47. Every Republican voted for the nominee, sans Sessions, who abstained. The lone Democrat to vote for Sessions was Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. During the Senate floor debate, Warren was prohibited from speaking on the nomination after she tried to read into the record a letter from Coretta Scott King opposing Sessions' nomination to be a federal judge in 1986. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invoked a rarely used Senate Rule, Rule 19, that prohibits senators from impugning the character of another senator. Warren proceeded to read the letter outside of the Senate chamber on social media and her comments and letter went viral.

The third confirmation vote of the week came in the early morning hours of Friday, when the Senate gave final approval to the nomination of Representative Tom Price (R-Ga.) to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services by a vote of 52-47 on a party-line vote. The 52nd vote in favor of confirmation this time was cast by Sessions' replacement from Alabama, newly minted Senator Luther Strange (R), the state's former attorney general. Strange flew to Washington, D.C., after being nominated and was sworn into office upon arrival at the Capitol.

Before leaving Washington for the week, the Senate voted to break a Democratic filibuster and advance the nomination of Steve Mnuchin to be Secretary of the Treasury. Following an expected 30 hours of debate, the Senate will likely vote on the nomination of Mnuchin Monday evening. The Senate on Monday is also expected to vote on the nominations of David Shulkin, to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Linda McMahon, to be Administrator of the Small Business Administration.

The Cabinet count as of Friday, Feb. 10: eight confirmed, one on schedule for a final Senate vote next week, and eight still winding their way through Senate committees.

NCSL's Advocacy in Washington

NCSL's Washington staff advocate Congress, the White House, and federal agencies on behalf of state legislatures in accord with the policy directives and resolutions that are recommended by the NCSL Standing Committees and adopted by the full conference at the annual NCSL Legislative Summit Business Meeting. As a result of the advocacy that is guided by these policies positions, NCSL is recognized as a formidable lobbying force in state-federal relations.

More information on the NCSL Policy Process can be found here.

NCSL Staff in Washington, D.C.