By Bobby Frederick, Director of Legislative Affairs and Public Policy
Fresh off a multi-week “summer recess,” both the House and Senate returned to the nation’s capital this week to face a packed fall agenda that includes funding the federal government and possibly considering the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
Both chambers of Congress will be in session for 10 of the remaining 17 weeks left in 2019, while the window for passing legislation narrows with the arrival of the 2020 presidential election cycle.
Appropriations State of Play: Congress’s first priority is to fund the federal government for the 2021 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 – a challenging task in recent history. In fact, the current Congress and administration own the distinction of presiding over the longest partial federal government shutdown in history at 35 days. In July, congressional leaders and President Donald Trump appeared to reach a significant budget agreement that would raise the debt ceiling beyond the 2020 election and increase domestic and defense spending by $320 billion.
As part of this agreement, lawmakers agreed in principle to abstain from pursuing any “poison pill” amendments or “riders” in appropriations bills. Appropriations bills determine which programs get federal spending, while authorizing bills (e.g., the farm bill, the Water Resources Development Act, etc.) focus on the policies of these programs. In Washington-speak, inserting a policy rider is a tactic designed to enact a specific policy, sometimes on a controversial issue, via the appropriations and spending-bill process.
While the July agreement included a pledge not to include “poison pill” riders, it appears that either the term was not formally defined, or the agreement has been broken. The Senate Appropriations Committee this week successfully approved appropriations bills for the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and water development projects, but Senate Democrats still are pursuing a policy rider on abortion – creating fresh tensions as lawmakers try to fund the government beyond Sept. 30.
The Energy and Water Development (E&WD) and Related Agencies Appropriations Act approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Sept. 12 funds the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in addition to Department of Energy programs. The overall total funding level recommended in the bill is $48.87 billion, $4.23 billion above the FY19 enacted level and $10.81 billion above the President’s budget request. The bill proposes to fund the Corps of Engineers at $7.75 billion, $751.5 million above the FY19 enacted level and $2.786 billion above the President’s budget request. Included in this overall funding level is $3.79 billion for Operations and Maintenance which is about a $60 million increase from FY19. Also, the Senate recommended to once again adjust the cost-share change for Chickamauga Lock to 75 percent federal funding and 25 percent Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) for one fiscal year. In a press release, the committee said: “[F]or the sixth consecutive year, the bill makes full-use of the estimated annual revenues from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) to advance American competitiveness and export capabilities.” The bill also meets the spending targets in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 for appropriations from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for the Corps of Engineers.
USMCA Any Day or Still Too Far Away? The NGFA continued its weekly effort on Capitol Hill to bolster support for bringing the USMCA to a vote. So far this year, NGFA has participated in nearly 200 face-to-face meetings on the Hill and more than 1,000 e-mails, calls and tweets to lawmakers urging them to pass the USMCA. This week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer delivered an offer to House Democrats on USMCA designed to resolve any remaining concerns. During a Sept. 12 news conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said House Democrats are waiting on improvements to language concerning enforceability of the agreement. [See previous Newsletter article].
Momentum continues to build toward bringing USMCA up for a vote, but there are no guarantees. NGFA members can continue to voice their support through the live advocacy campaign link.