Capitol to Capitol is NCSL's state-federal newsletter.
“It won’t surprise you to know that I’m concerned about September.” —U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, describing the chamber’s full plate to reporters
On Aug. 31, the late U.S. Senator John McCain became the 30th person to receive the honor of “Lying in State” in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. The location has been considered the country’s most suitable place to pay final tribute to its most eminent citizens by having their remains lie in state (in the case of government officials and military officers) or in honor (in the case of private citizens). Since 1865, most services have used the catafalque constructed for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.
Congress has returned to the Capitol for what will most likely be its last month of hard work before the mid-term elections consume all attention. With both the House and Senate in session for just 11 more working days, Congress will need to first and foremost pass the 12 annual appropriations bills to fund the government or risk a government shutdown. Although both chambers have made unusually good progress passing their respective “minibus” packaged spending bills, conference committees between the two will prove difficult.
The first three-bill minibus package expected to reach the president’s desk is HR 5895, which combines the fiscal 2019 Energy-Water, Legislative Branch and Military Construction-VA bills. While this package is said to be the least controversial of the lot, issues over how to fund veterans’ access to private health care could cause some heartburn for appropriators. And if the “least controversial” funding bill already contains problems, the remaining appropriations packages will prove to be much more difficult tasks.
While Republicans are usually eager to pass a standalone defense spending bill before the end of the fiscal year, this year the Senate has paired it with the always controversial Labor-HHS-Education bill in an effort to get both passed. The House version of the Labor-HHS-Education bill is loaded with partisan poison pills further complicating the process. Now, instead of following regular order, the House will go directly to conference with the Senate’s package without passing its own. If a compromise is not reached in conference, the Pentagon could find its funding under a continuing resolution for the 10th year in a row. As of now, the leadership’s plan is to put several bills on the president’s desk to fund most of the government before the Sept. 30 deadline and pass some type of continuing resolution for the rest to avoid a partial government shutdown.
NCSL Contact: Jake Lestock
If appropriations didn’t cause enough unease for leadership, several other high-profile issues are also on the docket:
In 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) in the first-ever game of intercollegiate football. Teams were made up of 25 players and the aim was to kick the round ball in the opponent’s goal. Aside from kicking, players could bat the ball with their hands, feet, heads and sides. Carrying or throwing the ball was not permitted.
Aug. 27—The USDA released key details of its initial $6.3 billion aid package for farmers impacted by retaliatory measures from foreign nations in response to the president’s imposition of a number of tariffs. In direct aid to producers, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) will administer the Market Facilitation Program (MFP) to provide payments to corn, cotton, dairy, hog, sorghum, soybean and wheat producers starting Sept. 4, as the first payment period. The second payment period, if warranted, will be determined by the USDA. Previously, the USDA had announced aid would total $12 billion, so it appears a second payment period will be established.
In total, soybean producers would receive $3.6 billion of $4.7 billion, the vast majority of direct aid, with pork producers receiving $290 million and the rest split between producers of corn, cotton, milk, sorghum and wheat. Additionally, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will administer a Food Purchase and Distribution Program to purchase up to $1.2 billion in commodities. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) will distribute these commodities through nutrition assistance programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and child nutrition programs. AMS will buy affected products in four phases. The materials purchased can be adjusted between phases to accommodate changes due to growing conditions; product availability; market conditions; trade negotiation status; and program capacity.
A full list of commodities can be found here, with the largest purchases going towards pork, sweet cherries, apples, pistachios and dairy. Finally, the Foreign Agricultural Service’s (FAS) Agricultural Trade Promotion Program (ATP) will make use of $200 million to develop foreign markets for U.S. agricultural products. The program will help U.S. agricultural exporters identify and access new markets and help mitigate the adverse effects of other countries’ restrictions.
Visit here for more information related to states and allocated aid amounts. For a detailed breakdown of the total aid by state, see an analysis by the American Farm Bureau here.
NCSL Contacts: Ben Husch, Kristen Hildreth
The U.S. Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service released proposed rules on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s cap on state and local deductions on Aug. 23. These rules were designed to clarify the relationship between state and local tax credits and the federal tax rules for charitable contribution deductions. New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have adopted proposals allowing taxpayers to recharacterize their state and local tax payments as charitable contributions, which remain fully deductible. The Trump administration says the new rules will prevent people from avoiding the $10,000 cap by construing tax payments as charitable contributions, which are not subject to the cap. There is concern that the administration’s efforts to stop these actions would hurt other similar state programs that offer tax breaks for contributions to private charities backed by the government. It is widely expected among tax attorneys that challenges to the new rules will end up in court.
NCSL Contact: Jake Lestock
On Aug. 28, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced assistance for 47 higher education institutions of more than $63 million under the Emergency Assistance to Institutions of Higher Education program. The program is intended to assist students in areas directly affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and the 2017 California wildfires. Funding was previously appropriated by Congress, with money available until December 2022. Funding priority is given to students who are homeless or, due to displacement, at risk of homelessness. Currently, more than $5 million has been awarded under the Defraying Costs of Enrolling Displaced Students program and the U.S. Department of Education will continue to evaluate applications through Oct. 31, 2018. A complete list of institutions awarded financial assistance under the Emergency Assistance to Institutions of Higher Education program may be found here.
NCSL Contacts: Joan Wodiska, Miranda McDonald
On Aug. 23, the Federal Commission on School Safety (FCSS) convened for a field visit at the Miley Achievement Center in Las Vegas. Led by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen, FCSS met to highlight successful physical security measures in schools. Panel discussion topics included local law enforcement perspectives on school building security and designing school building security. In addition to touring the school, Nielsen met with local school and law enforcement officials to discuss school building safety. A livestream of the panel discussions may be found here.
While Denver earned its “Mile High City” nickname because its official elevation is 1 mile (5,280 feet) above sea level, Santa Fe, N.M., is actually the highest capital city in the United States, sitting at 7,199 feet.
Read the Aug. 20 Capitol to Capitol.
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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.