WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2015 – Congress is kicking off an appropriations process that could produce a pivotal showdown between congressional Republicans and the White House over its regulatory agenda.
Spending bills are must-pass measures -- failing to pass them could shut down government agencies -- so they represent the best chance that Republicans will likely have in the 114th Congress to block or alter rules and regulations the administration is imposing.
Republicans may pack the appropriations bills with a series of policy riders, including ones attacking the administration’s proposed “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule, endangered species listings and proposed controls on carbon emissions from power plants.
Another option is to move standalone bills attacking those regulations, but President Obama would almost certainly veto them, and Republicans likely would have a hard time getting enough Democratic support to override a veto. Republicans control 54 votes in the Senate and would need 67 to override a veto. The president would be harder pressed to veto an appropriations bill.
With a mind toward going the policy-rider route, GOP leaders began before Christmas impressing on conservatives the importance of supporting appropriations bills this year, said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
“It’s very much an admonition to everybody that wants these regulations stopped. … You can’t be voting against an appropriations bill or else you’re not going to get any of this stuff done,” Grassley said.
Or put another way, Grassley said, Republicans who vote against appropriations “are going to ruin the chances of stopping an out-of-control bureaucracy.”
The first appropriations hearings were getting started this week -- with several focusing on the Army Corps of Engineers and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -– and will shift into full gear after next week’s Presidents Day recess. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to testify before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee the last week of February.
The House and Senate Appropriations committees will likely draft and vote on the spending bills in the spring once the leadership agrees on spending limits for each measure.
The current Senate stalemate over a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the remainder of fiscal 2015 is giving lawmakers a taste of the rough ride that could be ahead on the 2016 appropriations bills. Democrats have kept the DHS bill bottled up because of House-passed provisions blocking the president’s executive actions on immigration.
Immigration tends to be a more politically charged than many of the other policy issues that appropriators are likely to consider, said Roger Szemraj, a former Democratic aide to the House Agriculture Appropriations panel.
Still, he said, several of the appropriations bill have routinely stalled in Congress over the years because of fights over policy and funding, including the Interior-Environment measure, which funds the EPA and would be the target of a WOTUS rider.
One of the big questions for Republicans is how far to go in challenging the White House. Szemraj said lawmakers will to have decide: “To what extent are we just going to push the edge on policy with respect to this bill versus to what respect are we just going to get something done.”
There’s also the question of what the policy riders will actually say. The American Farm Bureau Federation and other interest groups opposed to the WOTUS rule, which would redefine what streams, ditches and other features are regulated by the Clean Water Act, have been going over recent committee testimony to figure out how best to craft a legislative measure.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army who oversees the Corps of Engineers, told a joint House-Senate hearing Feb. 4 that the administration would clarify some of the definitions in the rule on issues such as erosional features. There might be “some common ground” with the administration that a policy rider could address, said Don Parrish, senior director for regulatory relations at the Farm Bureau.
An appropriations rider isn’t a perfect solution from the standpoint of lawmakers who want to stop agency actions, however. In this case, the WOTUS rule could be final before the appropriations bills are enacted. Fiscal 2016 doesn’t start until Oct 1. The administration has planned to finalize the rule by April although the schedule is almost certain to slip.
There may be additional congressional hearings on the WOTUS issue outside the appropriations process. Grassley, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is considering holding a hearing that would be focused on whether the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers properly followed the Administrative Procedures Act in drafting the rule. Grassley said he isn’t sure yet whether his committee will have the time.
School nutrition is another issue that come up in the appropriations process. The chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and a Senate appropriator, John Hoeven, R-N.D., last year pushed for a waiver that would allow schools to opt out of the higher nutrition standards set by the Agriculture Department under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school district nutrition directors, has backed the idea of a waiver but is focused this year on altering the standards permanently through the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids law.
A waiver provision contained in the House’s fiscal 2015 Agriculture spending bill would have been limited to schools that could show a net loss for a six-month period. That would have left out many schools that are also having problems, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the SNA.
The congressional committees responsible for reauthorizing the nutrition law haven’t released schedules for moving a bill, although hearings could start as soon as March.
One of the big unknowns for the 114th Congress is whether Republicans will seek to try to make some long-term budget cuts through what is known as budget reconciliation. Reconciliation is separate from the appropriations process and was last used, by Democrats, to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
If Republicans do pursue cuts in agriculture and nutrition programs this year, they won’t get any help from the Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, says panel’s ranking member, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
“My position is that we’ve done our cuts, we’ve taken our medicine, and we should not do any more,” Peterson said, referring to the reductions made in the 2014 farm bill. “If they come and ask us to do it. I’m not going to cooperate, no matter what it is.”
The House and Senate are both expected to move budget resolutions this spring. But a budget resolution is just a blueprint, and any cuts that the resolutions propose won’t take effect unless a reconciliation measure gets enacted. GOP leaders haven’t said whether they will try to do the latter.
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