From our Hill Sources: Thinking about a road trip this summer? The Highway Trust Fund is set to expire, jeopardizing funding for highway infrastructure. The House is also set to consider veterans legislation and bills related to innovation. Meanwhile, the Senate is working on “fast-track” trade authority.
Repairing Highways and Infrastructure Projects
The Highway Trust Fund is set to expire at the end of May. The Fund is the federal government’s account—funding largely by a tax on gas—that pays for state and federal infrastructure projects. Until 2008, the Highway Trust Fund was paid for exclusively by user fees, and since then, Congress has authorized additional money on a nearly annual basis.
From our Hill Sources: Last year, Congress passed a patch, which expires at the end of this month, after which the Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money in July. Republican leaders in Congress are likely to put another funding extension to a vote next week, which would give them more time to negotiate a longer-term highway funding bill. Some Democrats in Congress are saying they will reject the short-term bill and want to work instead on a long-term solution.
The President’s 2016 Budget proposes a six-year, $478 billion infrastructure funding plan. It is funded by a one-time, 14-percent corporate tax on profits held overseas, estimated at up to $2 trillion. The White House predicted the tax would bring in approximately $238 billion over five years.
The House will vote on a short-term transportation funding bill this week:
Highway and Transportation Funding Act (HR 2353 and S 1350 in the Senate)
Sponsor: Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) To provide an extension of Federal-aid highway, highway safety, motor carrier safety, transit, and other programs funded out of the Highway Trust Fund. According to the bill sponsor: “while highway and transit program spending authority expires at the end of the month, the Highway Trust Fund has sufficient resources to fund its obligations through the end of July. It was our preference to move an extension through the end of the year, but we will need more time to reach a bipartisan agreement on offsets. This legislation will allow transportation spending to continue through July, while we work towards a next step to close the Trust Fund’s shortfall. Doing so will require our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to be constructive in working towards a solution. Only then will we be able to produce a plan that gives states the certainty they need to build the roads, bridges, and other infrastructure our communities and economy need to thrive.” (Read bill text)
Related Bills in Congress
Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act (HR 1846)
Sponsor: Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) —Bipartisan— “Allows all transportation funding proposals to be considered, while simultaneously ensuring the trust fund remains solvent for no less than 10 years. In order to sustain the trust fund in the near-term, the legislation indexes the gas and diesel user fees to inflation—raising roughly $27.5 billion and providing funding for our infrastructure needs for 1.7 years. In order to help reach a truly long-term funding solution, this legislation would create a bipartisan, bicameral Transportation Commission no later than September 1, 2015. This group would be charged with determining a path forward for sustainable funding, and would be advised to consider all options.” according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text)
Move America Act (S 1186)
Sponsor: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) —Bipartisan— “Would expand tax-exempt private activity bonds and create a new infrastructure tax credit, giving states significant flexibility to pursue infrastructure projects that are badly needed across the country,” according to the Senate Finance Committee. “Greater use of private capital through public-private partnerships (“P3s”) could serve as a helpful addition to increased federal infrastructure spending through the infrastructure trust funds. P3s provide two major benefits: the private investment provides an injection of upfront capital financing, and the risk-transfer to private parties can bring increased efficiency to the design, construction, and maintenance process. While not all projects are feasible for P3s, they can play a helpful, additive role for public infrastructure, in concert with robust public funding.” (Read bill text)
Invest in Transportation Act (S 981)
Sponsor: Sen. Paul (R-KY) —Bipartisan— “Would strengthen the US economy and create jobs by allowing companies to voluntarily return their foreign earnings to the United States at a tax rate of 6.5 percent. The rate is only for repatriations that exceed each company’s average repatriations in recent years, and funds must have been earned in 2015 or earlier. Companies would have up to five years to complete the transfer.” “The interstate highway system is of vital importance to our economy. All across the country, bridges and roads are deficient and in need of replacement. We can help fund new construction and repair by lowering the repatriation rate and bringing money held by US companies back home. This would mean no new taxes, but more revenue, and it is a solution that should win support from both political parties,” according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) “Would phase in a nickel a gallon tax increase over each of the next three years on gasoline and diesel. Of all the proposals being circulated on Capitol Hill, this is simplest, easiest to pass, and the only one giving long term stability,” according to the bill sponsor. “As President Reagan said when he led a similar effort in 1982, it won’t increase the deficit or increase taxes due on April 15. Instead, it will be paid for by the gas tax user fee that has supported the Highway Trust Fund since 1956.” (Read bill text)
Gas Tax Replacement Act (HR 309)
Sponsor: Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) “Would replace the chronically-underperforming federal gas tax with a life-cycle assessment-based carbon tax on gasoline and diesel fuels that will accurately reflect the carbon emissions of the fuel,” according to the bill sponsor. “The Gas Tax Replacement Act would take our nation in a bold new direction and stabilize the chronically-underfunded Highway Trust Fund, which states and municipalities rely on to repair crumbling roads and bridges, expand transit rail service, and support a growing economy. Further, the Gas Tax Replacement Act would help spur advancements in clean energy technology, reduce carbon pollution, and fight climate change here at home and abroad.” (Read bill text)
Veterans Legislation and VA Choice
As we approach Memorial Day, the House will be voting on several bills related to veterans this week. In addition, the House and Senate held hearings last week on the VA Choice Program, which was passed into law last year to enable veterans to seek health care outside of the Veterans Administration (VA). In question is a regulation that bars veterans from using a private care program if they live within 40 miles of a VA clinic. Since the program was launched in November, nearly 8 million VA Choice cards were issued to veterans—but only 48,642 appointments have been made, according to testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
A bill addressing this regulation has been introduced in the House to address the issue, but hasn’t yet passed through the Committee process:
Sponsor: Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) To require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to use existing authorities to furnish health care at non-Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to veterans who live more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest medical facility of the Department that furnishes the care sought by the veteran. (Read bill text)
Veterans Bills to be voted on by the House
Sponsor: Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) —Bipartisan— Extends through FY2020 the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) homeless veterans reintegration programs. (Those programs provide job training, counseling, and placement services to homeless veterans to expedite their reintegration into the labor force.) Makes eligible for participation in those programs: (1) homeless veterans, (2) veterans who are participating in the VA supported housing program for which rental assistance is provided under the United States Housing Act of 1937, and (3) veterans who are transitioning from being incarcerated. (Read bill text)
Ensuring VA Employee Accountability Act (HR 1038)
Sponsor: Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) Would ensure that specific disciplinary actions remain within the employee’s record as long as they are with the Department, according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Rep. Jerry McNerney (R-CA) “Would protect small businesses owned by disabled veterans in the event that the business owner passes away, by providing a transition period during which the business would keep its SDVOSB status and any federal contracts associated with that status. The transition period would last 10 years after the veteran-owner’s death, if the veteran were either 100% disabled or died from a service-connected disability. The transition period would last 3 years in all other cases,” according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) —Bipartisan— “Would allow the Secretary of the VA to give preference to companies that have high concentrations of veteran employees when awarding VA contracts, which will reward companies that make it a priority to provide veterans with meaningful employment opportunities and incentivize other companies to do the same,” according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text)
Veteran’s ID Card Act (HR 91)
Sponsor: Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) —Bipartisan— “Enables all veterans to obtain an ID card through the VA at no cost to the US taxpayer,” according to the bill sponsor. Currently, the VA only offers ID cards to those who have served at least 20 years in the Armed Forces or those who receive medical care for a service-connected disability. This leaves a large population of veterans who have served honorably with no easy way to prove their military service." (Read bill text)
Vulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act (HR 1816)
Sponsor: Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) Amends the United States Housing Act of 1937 to exclude as family income for Department of Housing and Urban Development housing assistance purposes any Department of Veterans Affairs payments made to veterans in need of regular aid and attendance for expenses related to such aid and attendance. (Read bill text)
In a memo to House Republicans, the House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), outlined the theme for the week: innovation. “Innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit are woven into our identity as Americans,” he explained. “We are the pioneers that always look beyond to the next frontier. From sending a man to the moon to leading the internet revolution, the world has always looked to America to lead into the future.” (Read the full memo.) In that vein, the House will consider the following bills:
Sponsor: Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) —Bipartisan— “Amends the Department of Energy (DOE) High-End Computing Revitalization Act of 2004 to promote accelerated gains in “exascale” computing, computing whose speed approaches that of the human brain,” according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text)
Science Prize Competitions Act (HR 1162)
Sponsor: Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) —Bipartisan— “Promotes increased utilization of prize competitions within the federal government to create technological breakthroughs,” according to the House Science Committee. (Read bill text)
Research and Development Efficiency Act (HR 1119)
Sponsor: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) —Bipartisan— “To have Federal research regulations reviewed for unjustified burdens, unnecessary requirements, and duplication and to recommend cost saving reforms,” according to the House Science Committee. (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) —Bipartisan— “To authorize the establishment of a body under the National Science and Technology Council to identify and coordinate international science and technology cooperation opportunities,” according to the House Science Committee. (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) —Bipartisan— “To prioritize NOAA research on a focused program for improvement in weather forecasting and prediction of high impact weather events and to expand commercial opportunities for the provision of weather data,” according to the House Majority Leader. (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) “Would improve management of the National Laboratories, enhance technology commercialization, and facilitate public-private partnerships,” according to the House Science Committee. (Read bill text)
Also in the House…
It’s also Appropriations season in Congress! This week, the House will consider:
Legislative Branch Appropriations Act (HR 2250)
Sponsor: Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) “Provides annual funding for the offices of Members of the House of Representatives, the support agencies of Congress, security, services for visitors, and Capitol operations and maintenance. The total included for the House and joint operations, excluding Senate-only items, is $3.3 billion. This is the same as the 2015 level and $172.3 million below the President’s request. In all, funding for the House of Representatives has been reduced by 14% since Republicans gained its control in January 2011,” according to the House Appropriations Committee. (Read bill text)
The House will also consider:
Coast Guard Authorization Act (HR 1987)
Sponsor: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) —Bipartisan— “Authorizes Coast Guard and Federal Maritime Commission funding levels for two years, and includes provisions to improve Coast Guard mission effectiveness, help modernize the Service’s aging vessels and other assets, and reform U.S. maritime transportation laws,” according to the bill sponsors. “Authorizes the Coast Guard for Fiscal Year 2016 and 2017 at currently authorized levels, ensuring the Service has the resources it needs to successfully conduct its critical missions. Supports Coast Guard Servicemembers by ensuring Coast Guard officers and enlisted servicemembers receive access to the same benefits as their counterparts in the Department of Defense. Recapitalizes aging Coast Guard assets to ensure the Coast Guard has the tools to carry out its important missions and keep critically needed new aircraft, vessels, and related technology on schedule and on budget.” (Read bill text)
Sponsor: Sen. John Cornyn (R-TN) —Bipartisan— “Boosts support for and protection of victims of human trafficking by increasing law enforcement resources, enhancing victims’ services and increasing penalties on perpetrators,” according to the bill sponsor. (Read bill text) —Passed by the Senate on April 22, 2015; now goes to the House for a vote.—
Trade Promotion Authority in the Senate
The Senate will be debating whether to give the President trade promotion authority, which would allow Congress to “fast-track” approval of trade agreements. With “fast-track” authority, the President would be able to negotiate agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Congress would have to vote yes or no on the entire trade deal and would forego the ability to amend it.
Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act (“Trade Promotion Authority” or TPA-2015) (S 995)
Sponsor: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) —Bipartisan— “Outlines 21st century congressional negotiating objectives that any administration – Republican or Democratic – must follow when entering into and conducting trade talks with foreign countries while also increasing transparency by requiring that Congress have access to important information surrounding pending trade deals and that the public receive detailed updates and see the full details of trade agreements well before they are signed. When the trade agreement meets the United States’ objectives and Congress is sufficiently consulted, the legislation allows for trade deals to be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote, an incentive for negotiating nations to put their best offer forward for any deal. At the same time, the bill creates a new mechanism to withdraw TPA procedures and hold the administration accountable should it fail to meet the requirements of TPA,” according to the bill sponsors. (Read bill text)
From our Hill Sources: To secure additional Democratic support, Senate leaders agreed to bring to a vote a customs and currency bill which would prevent countries from keeping their currency artificially low. The bill passed the Senate last week on a 78-to-20 vote. They also agreed to vote on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (S 1267), which passed by a 99-to-1 vote.
Senate Democrats also negotiated into the “fast-track” package consideration of the Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that helps retrain workers who have lost their jobs because companies moving production overseas:
Trade Adjustment Assistance Reauthorization Act (S 1268 and HR 1892 in the House)
Sponsor: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) “Reauthorizes the TAA for Workers, TAA for Firms, and TAA for Farmers programs through June 30, 2021. Key components of the TAA for Workers program include: Trade Readjustment Assistance, a weekly payment to a worker who has exhausted his or her unemployment insurance benefits and enrolled in an eligible training program; occupational training; Alternative Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provides a wage subsidy to eligible workers over the age of 50 to subsidize a portion of the wage difference between new wage and their old wage; and job search assistance and relocation allowances. Previous reauthorizations of TAA have been done with congressional action on international trade,” according to the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
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