mid-term elections

Some Hate, But Most Love the FY 2018 Spending Spree

Overriding fiscal hawks and rebuking President Trump, the bipartisan congressional FY 2018 spending package sweetens a lot of federal funding pots and will set up a shopping spree to get the money spent before the fiscal year ends this fall.

Overriding fiscal hawks and rebuking President Trump, the bipartisan congressional FY 2018 spending package sweetens a lot of federal funding pots and will set up a shopping spree to get the money spent before the fiscal year ends this fall.

Fiscal hawks hated it. President Trump said he would never sign another bill like it. Pundits said it was a rebuke to President Trump’s priorities and reflected poorly on his reputed negotiating prowess. Just about everyone else thought it was great.

The $1.3 trillion Fiscal Year 2018 spending bill gave new meaning to the word “omnibus.” Not only did it cover the waterfront of federal activity, it sweetened most of the federal spending pots, which is expected to energize efforts to get the money out the door by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, with the eager assistance of Members of Congress facing tougher-than-usual re-election battles.

Defense spending went up sharply, but there also were significant spending bumps for a variety of programs from community development block grants to funding for buses, a priority for The Bus Coalition. Rural areas will benefit from a tripling of grant money for rural TIGER projects, nearly $1 billion for rural water and sanitary waste projects and $685 million for rural broadband. The Secure Rural Schools program, almost given up for dead, was extended for another two years, benefiting Pacific Northwest interests.

Despite giddiness over the spending spree anticipated by passage of the spending package, there is a sober recognition this could be the last significant action by Congress until after the mid-term election in November. Results from special elections and President Trump’s lagging popularity have excited Democrats while alarming Republicans that control of one or both houses of Congress could flip, creating even more roadblocks to Trump’s agenda.

The combined fiscal effects of the GOP tax cut and the FY2018 spending measure may pour cold water on what will likely be equally generous FY2019 appropriations. In February, Congress agreed to similarly large topline spending levels for both defense and domestic discretionary spending for FY2019. A budget in hand this early typically greases the wheels of the appropriations process, but some congressional observers predict Congress will punt major spending decisions until after the November election to avoid defending an unpopular vote on the campaign trail.

The President complained the omnibus spending package contained a lot of “giveaways” to gain Democratic votes. In addition, the measure didn’t include a lot of Trump priorities, from his border wall to steep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department and National Institutes for Health. It did include provisions blocking private school vouchers and increasing the budget for after-school programs and student mental health services and violence-prevention initiatives. And several regional projects were salvaged, such as $300 million to remove toxic sediment from the Great Lakes and $73 million to restore Chesapeake Bay, both of which were Target administration targets.

Major policy issues, including action on the tenuous situation for so-called “Dreamers,” were notably absent. The package managed to sneak in two provisions related to gun violence, presumably to forestall a more public discussion of the issue. One provision will increase incentives for federal agencies and the military to upload records into the background-checking system used for gun purchases. The second lifts the ban on Centers for Disease Control conducting research on gun violence, but provides no funding for it. Such research has been blocked by the Dickey Amendment, named after a GOP congressman who sponsored it, but later changed his mind.

The negotiations that led to the spending package became a focal point for criticism. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter ripped Trump for failing to achieve his primary priorities even though he touted his negotiating skill in his presidential campaign. Coulter’s criticism was echoed by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who clucked that Trump had been out-negotiated. Earlier, he compared negotiating with Trump to Jell-O.

In an odd postscript to the spending deal, Trump has privately pressured the Pentagon to divert some of its enlarged budget to build his border wall.



NW Delegation Continues to Move On Up

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

While there may be a lack of close, competitive federal races in the Pacific Northwest, there is something to keep an eye on. 

The increasing seniority of Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington will continue to grow in the next Congress and the region’s influence may be nearing an all-time high. Here is a quick snapshot of the opportunities facing our region’s most influential policymakers.

Senator Patty Murray's rise to power is one of the most underreported stories in politics. Murray has been given immense responsibilities by her Democratic caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the DSCC and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges.

Because of Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) retirement, Murray could take over as chair or ranking member on the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for the largest domestic spending bill by far and funds the Department of Health and Human Services, Education and Labor. Murray would have to give up her top spot on the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, but the opportunity will likely be too good to pass up.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue to lead the powerful Finance Committee as chair if Democrats stay in power or ranking member if the GOP controls the Senate. Even if he is in the minority, Wyden will continue to wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing the transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee this past Congress, could ascend to become an Appropriations subcommittee chair or ranking member in the next Congress. Because five or six senior Democratic appropriators are either retiring or will lose their races, Merkley could be catapulted to one of the more senior members of the Appropriations Committee. As a member of the Banking Committee, Merkley has championed banking reform measures to ensure financial institutions are held accountable for bad decisions and also tried to separate the banking and investment arms of financial institutions. Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and has led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause should Democrats lose control of the Senate. There will be plenty of fellow Democrats who will want to employ the filibuster as often as it was used against them.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Small Business Committee and member of the Finance and Commerce committees, will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through the Northwest. Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing.

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his chairmanship of Communications and Technology Subcommittee where he will continue to lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will continue to lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. There has been some speculation that a few fellow GOPers are vying for the position, largely due to the NRCC’s low fundraising numbers. However, Walden has friends in high places, namely Speaker John Boehner, and it’s likely the GOP will pick up nearly a dozen seats this election, cementing his tenure for another two years. Boehner is quoted saying that Walden is working “tirelessly” on behalf of Republican candidates and that he is a “big reason” the GOP has the opportunity to increase its majority.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments. The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and received a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member of Congress. It’s unlikely she will be able to chair an Appropriations subcommittee, but she will accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will continue to find ways to elevate her public profile as a rising leader in the party.

Congressman Peter DeFazio could face an interesting choice after the election. DeFazio is the ranking member of the House Resources Committee, an important committee for the Congressman’s district that has a wide swath of federal lands. However, it’s likely Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will lose his House seat in the upcoming election. DeFazio would be next in line to take over the top transportation post. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move in the next Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio would have an opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill if he were to take up the mantle for Democrats on the Transportation Committee. However, under Democratic Caucus rules, you can’t lead two committees, so DeFazio would have to make a choice between Resources and Transportation. Heading the Transportation Committee may be an opportunity the Congressman can’t pass up.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued investment in sustainable, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program.

Congressman Kurt Schrader is expected to maintain his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees. On these committees, Schrader will play a role in the continued debate over the national debt and remain influential over USDA and rural development policy. Schrader’s position on the Agriculture Committee will be critical as he works with fellow delegation members DeFazio and Walden to advocate for a responsible solution to the O&C lands issue.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will likely continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici is also safe to keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her ranking member status on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate.

Congressman Denny Heck is seeking his second term in the House. As freshman, members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck has done. Heck recognizes the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district and has made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to his ability to navigate the legislative process. Heck will likely continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda.

Seven States Could Decide Senate Control

Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs in this year's mid-term general election and insiders say it could come down to races in as few as seven states. Senate races in four more states, including Oregon, also could play a role. 

The political wildcard in the election deck is what happens in Republican primaries, including in Kentucky where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a Tea Party challenger. In 2012, GOP voters nominated very conservative and controversial candidates that cost them victory in November in at least two states.

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley won't have a walk-over in his first re-election bid, as credible Republicans, including Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, have jumped into the race. Expect some big money to come to Oregon to bludgeon Merkley. If that works or Merkley slips, Oregon could wind up on the short map of key races to decide control of the Senate.

For now, Washington Post political analysts point to Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina as the battlegrounds to watch with Democratic incumbents trying to stave off GOP challengers. Republicans are given the edge to win seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where Democratic incumbents are retiring or, in the case of Montana Senator Max Baucus, heading off to the China as the new U.S. ambassador.

Obamacare to Command Continuing Headlines

Obamacare faced a rough 2013, but it could be a walk in the park compared what lies ahead in 2014.

Elise Viebeck, writing for The Hill, identifies five significant stories to watch for in the coming year.

The most obvious is an analysis of how many people and who enrolled in the new health insurance exchanges. Chances are good the total will be less than the Obama administration's target of 7 million enrollees. Who signs up will be followed with intense interest. Will healthy young adults enroll? Will people desert employer-sponsored plans to shop on the exchange? How many people will be covered by the Medicaid expansion? Answers to these and similar questions will have an impact on rates, which also will earn close scrutiny.

President Obama has shown a willingness to postpone deadlines. Viebeck says he pushed back 10 separate deadlines in 2013. One of the biggest pressure points is the individual health care insurance mandate, a critical lynchpin to the overall success of Obamacare. Viebeck speculates Obama could look for more workarounds to entice broad participation.

The requirement that most employers provide birth control in their plans will go before the Supreme Court in two challenges. The issue arrives on the top court's docket after split decisions by appellate courts.

Another area the media will sniff out is further cancellations of existing health plans. While many of the cancelled plans may not have been a great value, the cancellation undermined Obama's claim that no one would be forced to change their health care plan, which in turn eroded political trust in the President and Obamacare itself. Short of plan cancellations, there will be careful analysis of whether newly offered plans trim costs by narrowing patient choices of doctors and hospitals. The Wall Street Journal already has published an initial analysis. But some patients accelerated elective surgeries before the end of the year to take advantage of their existing coverage.