Beltway Roundup

by Jeff Genzer

Washington, D.C., continues to plod along in this election year with a great deal of posturing, but not much in the way of real accomplishments. The appropriations process for FY2015, which begins on October 1 of this year, has ground to a halt in the Senate. The basic fight is about how many (and what type of) amendments can be offered on any bills. The Senate Majority Leader wants to limit amendments to save time and avoid vulnerable incumbents from taking difficult votes. The Senate Minority Leader wants unlimited amendments with politically challenging votes. This is a recipe for no progress. These disputes prevented the passage of the energy efficiency bill, sponsored on a bipartisan basis by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH).

The Senate’s Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, led by Tom Harkin (D-IA), marked up their version of the FY2015 bill, but it has since stalled. The subcommittee’s number for LIHEAP is $3.39 billion, roughly equal to FY2014 levels. The chair of the House’s sister subcommittee, Jack Kingston (R-GA), suggested that the House may not even mark up the bill. There was some hope a few months ago that the bill would progress, because the House and Senate’s subcommittees were only $1 billion apart, compared with the more than $40 billion difference last year, but the policy disputes have been too difficult to bridge in this election year.

The State Energy Program (SEP) and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) are funded through the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill. House passage (with a vote of 253–170) occurred on July 10; the Senate bill stalled after subcommittee action in June. The House bill (H.R. 4923/H.Rep. 113-486) includes $200 million for WAP and $50 million for SEP, which is an improvement over the appropriated levels in FY2014 of $174 million for WAP and $50 million for SEP. When House members marked up their version of the bill last year, they included only $74 million for WAP and $12 million for SEP. Reportedly, the Senate subcommittee version includes $227 million for WAP and $50 million for SEP.

Full Appropriations Committee action in the Senate has been postponed because of another amendments dispute. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was planning to offer an amendment to the Energy and Water bill to prevent the EPA from moving forward on the greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants. The Interior and Environment bill is another magnet for amendments, including language in the House bill to prevent the EPA from moving forward on greenhouse gas rules for new and existing power plants, as well as Clean Water Act rules.

It certainly looks as if the appropriations process will require a continuing resolution until after the November elections.

The only “must-pass” bills for Congress’s consideration before the August recess appear to be: (1) legislation to temporarily provide funding for the Federal Highway Trust Fund and related transit accounts (the House Committee on Ways and Means has moved H.R. 5021, with floor action on both the House and Senate bills slated for July); and (2) supplemental appropriations to address the crisis associated with young illegal immigrants on the Southwest border. Other than those two bills, the legislative process is stalled. In the energy area it is possible that cyber security legislation will move forward. With recent cyber attacks on energy infrastructure, this is a critical issue for states and local governments.

On the administration front, in June the EPA did issue the existing power plant draft rules under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which includes provisions for energy efficiency policies and programs. Also, three of the state groups agreed to principles for inclusion of energy efficiency in state plans for 111(d), assuming the EPA goes forward with a final rule. These groups are the National Association of State Energy Officials, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the nomination of Norman Bay to become a commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the renomination of FERC’s Acting Chair Cheryl LaFleur for another term on the commission. A deal was apparently reached with the White House that would allow Commissioner LaFleur to remain as FERC chair for nine months after her reconfirmation for another term, and then to have Norman Bay replace her as chair. Shaun Donovan was confirmed as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on July 10, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was confirmed as Donovan’s replacement at HUD. You may recall that former OMB Director Sylvia Burwell has already replaced Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the Department of Health and Human Services.