A Washington Update: What Can Be Successful?

Could anyone have predicted such a tumultuous last few months or few days?

Shock waves hit Washington, DC, when it was announced that John McCain had a glioblastoma.

Another surprise came when President Trump, during an interview, said if he had known Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation that Trump would have never appointed him. He went on to criticize the Deputy AG, former FBI Director James Comey and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Is this disdain for the law?

The Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act has failed. The president chastised Republican senators and forced Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to call for a vote the week of July 24. If no changes are made, the bill will fail. Then, Republicans will need to be willing to work with Democrats to improve the flawed statute.

Educators are relieved. Both House and Senate replacement bills would have significantly reduced important funding providing support services to children in need.

Generally speaking, GOP lawmakers’ mood has darkened as the August recess approaches and they've made little progress on their priorities.

The House goes on its August recess at the end of July. The Senate has delayed its recess for two weeks until mid-August to work on key legislation. Neither will return until after Labor Day.

Several specific deadlines need to be met and several legislative priorities require action in one or both houses.

Currently needing some action are:

  • 2018 appropriation bills
  • Debt ceiling
  • 2018 budget plan
  • Tax reform
  • Reauthorization of the Career and Technical Education Act
  • GI Bill revisions, especially education opportunities
  • Infrastructure, and more

Education has a piece in each one of these.

Action Items

Appropriations: The House Appropriations Committee passed its FY 2018 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education funding bill (https://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/turn_4_xml.pdf).

The bill cuts funding to lower-priority programs, while targeting investments in medical research, public health, biodefense and important activities that help boost job growth. The legislation also includes several provisions to rein in unnecessary regulations, and to protect the sanctity of life.

Committee Chair Rodney Frelinhuysen states, “The bill reflects the Republican priorities to cut spending and focus investments in programs our people need most…and stops government overreach.”

The bill funds the Department of Education at $66 billion. The bill calls for a $2.4 billion reduction in funding for the department for Fiscal Year 2018. This amounts to a 3.5 percent cut in discretionary spending on education — much less than the 13 percent reduction that the Trump Administration proposed in its blueprint. The bill eliminates several duplicative or ineffective education programs, and makes reductions to several other lower-priority programs.

A Partial Summary
Special Education — The bill includes $12.2 billion for IDEA special education grants to states, an increase of $200 million.

Student Support and Academic Achievement State Grants — The bill includes $500 million, $100 million above the fiscal year 2017 level, for grants that provide flexible funds to states and school districts to expand access, improve school conditions and increase the use of technology.

Pell Grants — The maximum Pell Grant award is maintained at $5,920, funded by a combination of discretionary and mandatory funds. The bill rescinds $3.3 billion of the total $8.5 billion Pell surplus.

Impact Aid — The bill provides over $1.3 billion for Impact Aid, an increase of $5 million above the current enacted level.

Teacher Training would be cut $2.1 billion from the teacher assistance grants.

Charter Schools — The bill increases funding for charter schools by $28 million, to a total of $370 million.

TRIO and GEAR UP are increased by $60 million and $10 million, respectively, bringing TRIO programs to a total of $1.01 billion and GEAR UP to a total of $350 million.

Other Related Agencies
•        Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) includes $1 billion for CNCS, the same as last year's enacted level. 
•        Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) provides an advance appropriation of $445 million for CPB for fiscal year 2020, which is the same level of advance funding provided in fiscal year 2017.
•        Defunding ObamaCare — The legislation contains several provisions to stop the implementation of the ACA — including prohibiting the use of any new discretionary funding to implement the ACA.

Cuts — Several lower-priority, unproven programs including:
•        A cut of $150 million in refugee programs, consistent with the budget request.
•        A cut of $450 million for the Unaccompanied Alien Children program.

Terminated programs include:
•        CDC Climate Change program ($10 million), consistent with the budget request.
•        Economic Development Grants ($20 million), consistent with the budget request.
•        “Striving Readers” program ($190 million), consistent with the budget request; and
•        Overseas foreign language study program ($7 million), consistent with the budget request.

Action on Appropriations

House GOP leaders face an uphill budget battle to pass the Committee’s appropriation bill, as well as others. Paul Ryan and his lieutenants have a tough math problem. They are far from 218 votes needed.

House Republicans are considering “” and bringing a single omnibus measure that encompasses all 12 individual spending bills to the floor before the August recess. From a coalition-building perspective, there are certainly benefits to going the omnibus route. Rather than needing to amass support repeatedly on individual measures, rolling separate bills together means leaders only need to build a winning coalition once. In addition, when many issues are on the table, it can be easier to make trades to get certain members on board. Republicans will most likely punt dealing with the budget — which is a critical first step to the tax overhaul they're eyeing — until lawmakers return in September. Or they may try a “minibus” bill before recess that includes Defense and few others that will have less opposition.

Most lawmakers in the House are still clueless about what's in each of the 12 individual funding bills. The House Appropriations Committee hasn't approved them all. “You've got to see the product first, and right now it's still in the works,” says Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), an appropriations cardinal.

The Senate is farther behind in its efforts to draft an appropriations bill. Senate work on the budget resolution and appropriations bills is shifting into a higher gear as the August recess approaches — but it may not be smooth sailing ahead.

Raising the Debt Ceiling 

Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary, could be facing his first big problem. Before taking office, Mnuchin spoke with his predecessor, Jacob Lew, to get some advice. He was told to take the debt ceiling seriously, or face a potential financial crisis. Mnuchin has been unable to get Congress or his colleagues in the Trump administration on board with a strategy to raise the federal limit on governmental borrowing. This struggle raises the question, does this political newcomer have the stature in Washington to press for a vote on the debt ceiling that previous Treasury secretaries of both parties have said is critical to preserving the nation’s reputation for financial stability?

Several GOP staffers have said the likely scenario is for Senate Republicans to pass a clean debt ceiling and then the House will likely take up the debt ceiling bill and pass it with a few dozen Republicans and a large majority of House Democrats.

2018 Budget Plan

If the 2018 Budget blueprint fails, so does tax reform. One is required for the other. A budget blueprint is not an appropriation.

House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) has rolled out the GOP’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint proposal. This is the first step to launching a major tax code rewrite later this year. View the blueprint at http://bit.ly/2u3JzZU. To expedite a tax overhaul this year, GOP lawmakers would need to slash billions from politically sensitive programs like food stamps, student aid and federal pension funds.

Currently, Centrist Republicans are balking at the $200 billion in mandatory cuts, threatening to withhold their support. And House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) told reporters Monday the mandatory cuts aren't steep enough to garner conservatives’ backing.

Is it in trouble? What do you think?

Tax Reform

“The long-held GOP goal of re-engineering the U.S. tax system has now become a political imperative for the Trump administration, which has yet to deliver any major legislative victories despite Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress. 'They know they could really use a win,'” says Larry Kudlow, an informal economic adviser to the Trump campaign, who met with Trump last week. “The president, from the get-go, has been much more comfortable with tax cuts than health care.”

However, what was stated above is the determining factor in moving ahead with tax reform.

Reauthorization of the Career and Technical Education Act

The full House overwhelmingly passed its version of the Career and Technical Education Act and is awaiting Senate action. This would go hand-in-hand with President Trump’s apprenticeship initiative.

If the Senate takes up the legislation, Senator Lamar Alexander and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will have to support the House bill or write its own. The same bill stalled in the Senate during its last session.

GI Bill

With this legislation, military veterans and their families would see an expansion of education benefits now under considerationg by the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee.

The legislation was introduced by Committee Chair Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN). It enhances education benefits in the current GI Bill.

The bill offers tuition assistance for a longer time frame. It removes the 15-year cap for benefits that had forced veterans to “use it or lose it.” Eligible veterans would be allowed to go back to school at any time for life. It has been dubbed the “Forever GI Bill.”

Benefits would not expire for troops who become eligible after January 1, 2018. It also addresses several technicalities that limit the total number of recipients of GI Bill benefits. The legislation opens eligibility for future generations of veterans, including reservists who deploy on active duty, recipients of the Purple Heart regardless of the amount of time they serve, and surviving spouses and dependents of veterans who die during their service to the nation.

It is still in committee but should move quickly.

Infrastructure and More

Infrastructure: The timing and fate of President Trump’s infrastructure plan may depend on whether the GOP can enact major tax reform. This task will prove as challenging as has the healthcare bill.

Republicans are signaling that a massive rebuilding package that includes school construction, one of Trump’s top priorities, will have to wait on the sidelines until lawmakers overhaul the tax code.

The process will be just as time-consuming and daunting as healthcare; infrastructure could be pushed to the back burner.

Immigrants and Citizenship: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) just introduced a new version of a bill granting legal status and a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. The bill comes as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary relief from deportation to those immigrants, who are known as “Dreamers,” faces a legal challenge from Texas and nine other states.

We shall see how it progresses.

Student Loans: This will be a long battle both within the department, Congress and the courts. There are several issues involved from loan repayment policy, loan forgiveness practices and resolving what to do about students with loans after being enrolled in for-profit institutions that closed.

In Summary

Republicans are on track to leave for August recess with only a few major legislative accomplishments. The House GOP’s fiscal 2018 budget — a key for unlocking tax reform — currently doesn't have a path to passage on the floor. The Republican push to pass a partisan 12-bill spending package before the August recess has been scuttled and possibly scaled down due to lack of support within the conference. “We're in some quicksand right now. We just can't seem to free ourselves,” says Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR).

A unified Republican control of government does not exist. Trump is angry after seeing little progress on the Hill. Members say the president and his family are a distraction.

Congressional Republicans have been weighing their next steps after an effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act stalled in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on July 18 that the GOP would now be moving on “to comprehensive tax reform and to infrastructure,” though he is still pushing toward a healthcare vote next week.

But if the GOP does decide to pivot to tax reform or infrastructure, they face a big obstacle -— not having legislation for either.

So the big question is, where do we go from here?