April 27, 2012 Edition

In this week’s edition … Administration, Congress, Appropriations, Transportation, Health Care, Committee Action, Other News, Elections

Administration.  On Monday, President Obama issued an executive order that will allow U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies to help carry out grave human rights abuses (article).  He also gave three speeches urging Congress not to let interest rates double on federally subsidized student loans(see House for more on this as well as background information).  Here is one of his speeches.

The Hill reported on President Obama’s decision to form a task force to coordinate federal oversight of fracking, a move intended to quiet industry fears of overlapping regulations.

Rolling Stone interviewed the President.

As Senator, Obama opposed then President Bush’s use of executive power, but the New York Times reports that he is resorting to the same tactics, in part because Congress is so gridlocked.

Congress.  A brief summary of the week’s action in the House and Senate.

Senate – The Senate reconvened on Monday to resume debate on the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, which they finally passed on April 26 (article).  The House will pass something different requiring a conference committee or one chamber to accept the others.

On Tuesday, Senators rejected a motion to disapprove of new National Labor Relations Board election procedure rules (article).  The rules would make it easier and quicker for unions to hold workplace elections; Obama issued a veto threat over the resolution but it is essentially dead.

The chamber also voted on the 39 amendments to the postal reform bill, which among other things would provide $11 billion to finance buyouts of 15 percent of the current workforce.

  • Among the amendments that were accepted: one that would protect voting by mail and another that would make it more difficult to close rural post offices.
  • Among those that were rejected: an amendment that would have mandated that the Postal Service switch to five-day delivery; another that would have required the USPS to keep six-day delivery; and an amendment that would have created a panel to reorganize USPS.

The Senate passed (62-37) the postal reform bill on Wednesday; it is unclear when the House will take up postal reform.  The Economist has a brief history of the USPS and how we got to this situation, including this fun fact: there are more post offices than Starbucks, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart stores combined.

During the week, Senators voted to confirm Brian Wimes to be U.S. District Judge for the Eastern and Western Districts of Missouri (article) as well as Gregg Jeffrey Costa and David Campos Guaderrama to be U.S. district judges in Texas (article).

House – The House debated several noncontroversial bills on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, the chamber debated a motion to go to Conference on H.R. 4348, the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012, Part II (see below for more).  On Thursday and Friday, the House debated Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which the White House has threatened to veto (SAP/article).  According to one summary, the goal of CISPA is to help companies beef up their defenses against hackers who steal business secrets, rob customers’ financial information and wreak havoc on computer systems. The bill would tear down legal barriers that discourage companies from sharing information about cyber threats.

On Friday, the House is expected to vote on legislation that would keep the interest rates for certain federal loans at 3.4% for the next year (article); the rates were scheduled to increase to 6.8% (the normal rate) on July 1.

Background — In 2007, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed into law, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which temporarily lowered the interest rate on federal student loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent, among other things.  Rates revert back to 6.8 percent on July 1, 2012.   On average, the new rates would cost students $1,000 over the life of the loan.  The cost of extending the law would be $6 billion a year.  The Senate is expected to vote on a measure sponsored by Senator Reid (D-NV) during the week of May 7; the two versions will have to be reconciled because they use different offsets to pay for the bill.  The New York Times outlines the competing proposals.

Appropriations.  Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees continue to work on the annual spending bills, including the Senate Ag, Senate Energy and Water, and House Commerce-Justice-ScienceThe Hill reports that the House is planning on making significant cuts to health and foreign affairs programs.

The House Appropriations Committee set each subcommittee’s allocation on Wednesday.   The 302(b)s, as they are known, are fairly different from the Senate’s, which will cause problems if and when the House and Senate meet to iron out the differences between the spending bills.  The stalemate may lead to a government shutdown (article).

Transportation.  On Tuesday, Senate conferees were named for the conference committee on the highway authorization bill (article).  As mentioned above the House passed a motion to go to conference on the highway authorization bill; the Speaker also named the House conferees, which are listed here.  Because of the vast differences between the two versions and scheduled District Work Periods, many expect an agreement will not be reached until June.

Politico provided a link to an easy to read graph that outlines the costs of trucking industry.

Health Care.  Reuters reports that, even as they seek to repeal Obama’s health care reform bill, House Republicans haven’t yet come up with specific legislative options for a health reform “replace” plan.

Aetna announced it will offer individual health plans to Costco members in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

Committee Action. 

  • The Senate HELP Committee passed legislation to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration’s user fees; it now goes to the full Senate.
  • The Senate Agriculture Committee postponed a marked up the 2012 farm bill due to opposition from some southern Senators (article).  Click here for background on the bill.
  • The House Agriculture Committee held hearings on the farm bill.
  • The House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee marked up its version of the FDA user fee reauthorizations.
  • The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform passed legislation to reduce the deficit by $82 billion over 10 years, as required under the House Budget’s reconciliation instructions.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee also approved its reconciliation package.

Other News.

  • The Supreme Court heard the case regarding Arizona’s immigration law.   According to some, the Justices seemed sympathetic to Arizona’s position.
  • The Medicare trustees released their annual report that states Medicare and Social Security are on a fast track to deep fiscal problems (report/article).  As The Hill reported, “By 2024, the trustees said, Medicare’s trust fund won’t be able to cover seniors’ hospital benefits. Social Security is expected to reach the same tipping point in 2033 — three years earlier than the trustees estimated last year.”
  • Apparently progress is being made on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
  • U.S. and Afghan negotiators have reached over the support we will provide to Afghanistan after our withdrawal in 2014 (article).

Elections.

  • Romney won the New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island primaries on April 24 (article).
  • Newt suspended his campaign effective May 1 (article).
  • House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said there is ‘One in three chance’ House GOP could lose majority (article).
  • Two Pennsylvania Democrats lost their primaries on April 24 (article).
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) will face a primary challenge (article).
  • According to the LA Times, “Romney’s healthcare plan may be more revolutionary than Obama’s.”

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