Capitol to Capitol | March 16, 2020

3/16/2020

In a flurry to pass legislation to provide relief to states in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the House passed legislation early Saturday morning that would offer extended unemployment insurance, free diagnostic testing coverage, expanded food aid and increased federal Medicaid funding. The Senate is expected to take up a virus response package this week but details are unclear if they will pass the House version—in which there were disagreements regarding paid sick leave—or draft their own. There is also talk about wanting to do more for small businesses in this bill. Congress may draft a third, and broader stimulus package this week, but the situation is fluid as the Capitol complex is essentially shut down and members and staff work remotely and as safely as possible. NCSL last week strongly urged Congress to pass legislation that would support states in this pandemic with as much flexibility as appropriate.

NCSL in D.C.

Senator David Carlucci (R-N.Y.) was in Washington, D.C, earlier this month to help NCSL showcase state leadership in privacy and consumer protection. Carlucci met with both majority and minority staff from the Senate Commerce and House Energy and Commerce Committees, which have both released bills or proposed legislation on privacy. He also met with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to discuss

Letters

President Trump Declares State of Emergency for COVID-19

President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration on March 13, pledging $50 billion in unspecified aid in the ongoing COVID-19 response efforts. He did so under Section 501(b) of the Stafford Act, which allows the federal government to declare an emergency without a governor’s request and makes available only certain subsets of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recovery funds. This allows FEMA to operate as a vehicle to deliver virus response funds to state and local governments, reduce the spread of the virus, and stimulate the economy against its mounting impact. Read more about what the declaration means.

NCSL Contact: Lucia Bragg 

NCSL Urges Congressional Leadership to Support State Flexibility in COVID-19 Response

NCSL expressed support for COVID-19 response legislation that would maximize financial flexibility and continue to allow states to address the pandemic in the manner that best suits their own citizens and economies. In a letter sent to congressional leaders, NCSL urged Congress to continue to allow states to take the lead on addressing the enormous challenges the virus poses while allowing leaders to “manage federal funds through their established, transparent budget processes.” Congress has been developing short-term responses, as well as longer-term stimulus packages to address the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. The House—which passed the Coronavirus Aid Deal (HR 6201) late Friday, March 13—and Senate—which postponed a scheduled recess—is expected to vote on legislation this week. Highlights of HR 6201 include:

  • A 6.2% temporary increase in federal medical assistance percentages for Medicaid.
  • Additional funding for numerous nutrition programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and senior nutrition program. Provides flexibility to states in providing meals to students impacted by school closures. Also suspends work and work training requirements for SNAP during the crisis.
  • Additional funds for unemployment insurance (UI), and provides states with access to interest-free loans to help pay for regular UI benefits through Dec. 31, 2020, if needed.
  • Requires free COVID-19 testing.
  • Provisions for sick, family and medical leave. Provides $15 million for the Internal Revenue Services to implement tax credits for certain employers. More details provided in an NCSL summary.

For more details, see the House Appropriations Committee summary.

NCSL staff continue working diligently to comprehensively track efforts at the state and federal level to address Coronavirus or COVID-19. NCSL has assembled a webpage of state and federal resources on this topic.

NCSL Contacts: Erlinda Doherty (budget and revenue) Haley Nicholson and Margaret Wile (health and human services)

Senate Votes to Overturn Administration’s Borrower Defense Rule

Senate lawmakers voted to approve SR 56, a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution that would block the Trump administration’s rewrite of the Obama-era “borrower defense to repayment” rule. The final vote was 53-42, which included 10 Republicans voting in favor of the CRA. The rule was finalized last year and raises the standards that student borrowers must meet to receive debt forgiveness after being defrauded by colleges. The revised rule requires borrowers to demonstrate they suffered financial harm from their college’s misconduct and that the college made deceptive statements with knowledge of its misleading nature. The rewrite also requires borrowers to apply individually instead of allowing automatic discharges for groups of students and eliminates the Obama-era rule’s prohibition on predispute arbitration. The House passed a similar measure in January that would restore the Obama-era rule. The White House is expected to veto the resolution.

NCSL Contact:s Austin Reid and Jocelyn Salguero

HFC Amendment Spoils Senate Energy Legislation as House Moves Forward

The Senate was unable to advance a bipartisan package of energy legislation after disagreements over possible amendments. Though there were likely several potentially contentious amendments, the debate centered around adding a bill that would phase down the use of Hydroflurocarbons (HFCs). The bill, sponsored by Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) and Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), would have allowed states to enact their own stricter requirements, in line with the structure of the Clean Air Act, which garnered opposition from a few members who wanted to include a section establishing preemption. 

A similar bill on HFCs was approved by the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee in the House after voting down an amendment that would have added language instituting a preemption on states. The House is likely to move forward while the path for the bill in the Senate is highly unclear. It is also unclear when or if the Senate will reconsider the energy package.

NCSL Contacts: Ben Husch and Kristen Hildreth

President Orders DOE to Buy Oil

The president ordered the Department of Energy (DOE) to buy oil for storage in the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The order is likely aimed at helping to provide some cash flow to the oil industry following the crash in the price of oil due to market oversupply and lowered demand from the coronavirus. DOE's SPR, made up of many locations along the Gulf Coast contained 635 million barrels of oil as of March 6, and has the capacity to store up to another 77 million barrels of crude oil.

NCSL Contacts: Ben Husch and Kristen Hildreth

Injunction Issued Temporarily Blocking USDA from Implementing its Rule Impacting 700,000 Households on SNAP

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a nationwide injunction on Friday, March 13, temporarily halting the implementation of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule that would limit SNAP benefits for an estimated 700,000 Americans categorized as able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD’s).

The rule, which was set to go into effect on April 1, 2020, limited states' ability to extend benefits to certain ABAWD’s, beyond three months in a three-year period unless they are working a minimum of 80 hours per month. States currently have the option to apply to the USDA for a waiver of this time limit in areas with high unemployment. The rule changed the way USDA calculates state eligibility for a waiver, making it more difficult for states to qualify.

The lawsuit, filed by a group of attorneys general in 20 states across the country, asserts that the rule change sidestepped Congress' intent for SNAP, violated the rule-making process, imposes significant administrative and cost burdens on states, and would harm local businesses and economies. In its decision, the court cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an example of why states require the increased flexibilities the USDA's rule limits. This means current rules will remain in place until the court has more time to hear arguments and issues a final decision.  Final decision TBD.

NCSL Contact: Haley Nicholson, Margaret Wile and Sean Walsh (health and human services) and Ann Morse (immigration)

Court Rules in Favor of EB-5 Program

The EB-5 program, which creates a path to green cards for immigrants seeking citizenship in the U.S. through commercial investments, will go forward without delay, a federal judge ruled. Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the Florida EB-5 Investments LLC did not show the changes to the rule were suitable and substantial evidence to result in a “decline” in the program. The final regulation went into effect on Nov. 21, ultimately raising the minimum investment amounts required for a green card to $900,000 and $1.8 million. Previously, the investments were $500,000 and $1 million.

Read Judge Richard Leon’s opinion in Florida EB5 Invs., LLC v. Wolf.

NCSL Contacts: Jon Jukuri and Michael Quillen

The Reading Room

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.

NCSL Staff in Washington, D.C.

  • Molly Ramsdell | 202-624-3584 | Director
  • Erlinda Doherty | 202-624-8698 | Budgets and Revenue
  • Susan Frederick | 202-624-3566 | Law, Criminal Justice, and Public Safety
  • Abbie Gruwell 202-624-3569 | Commerce and Financial Services
  • Ben Husch | 202-624-7779 | Natural Resources and Infrastructure 
  • Jon Jukuri  | 202-624-8663 | Labor, Economic Development and International Trade
  • Haley Nicholson | 202-624-8662 | Health and Human Services
  • Austin Reid | 202-624-8678 | Education