GAVEL DOWN: Closing out the Week in Congress

10 min read

Big week on the Hill, with bills becoming law…

Senate passed legislation to help Puerto Rico restructure its $70B in debt — President Obama quickly signed bill into law before July 1st debt payment deadline. MilCon-VA spending bill, with included Zika funding package, failed in the Senate. President Obama signed FOIA reform bill into law, making it easier for public to access certain records. Senate Appropriations cleared final spending bill, marking the earliest all 12 spending bills have passed committee since 1988.

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law S. 337: FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and S. 2328: Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act at the Oval Office of the White House in WashingtonImage Source: Carolos Barria/REUTERS


Congress passes Puerto Rico debt legislation, President Obama signs bill into law


Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act) into law, just one day before the July 1st deadline where Puerto Rico is expected to default on $2 billion of debt, including $800 million of Constitutionally backed general obligation debt.

Watch bill signing.

Under Puerto Rico’s Constitution, these Constitutionally backed general obligation debts should receive priority over government resources, including those needed to keep hospitals and schools open. Earlier this month, U.S. hedge funds filed law suits against a local debt-moratorium law to ensure that they received priority, suggesting future lawsuits if Congress did not intervene.

PROMESA is the result of bipartisan compromises, Congressional leadership support, and the backing of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. The bill passed the House on June 9th by 297-127 vote and passed the Senate this Wednesday with a vote of 68-30. Senate approval was uncertain due to the unexpected early House recess, forcing the Senate to adopt the bill as is because amendments would have necessitated a House vote after the July 1st deadline.

What Will PROMESA Do?
Although PROMESA was passed before July 1st, Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said Puerto Rico does not have the money nor time to meet the debt payments due today.

Though PROMESA will not help Puerto Rico make today’s $2 billion debt payment, it will prevent lawsuits from creditors, create a financial oversight board that will control Puerto Rico’s budget and can reorder the priority of creditors, and allow federal minimum wage to be lowered to $4.25 for workers under 24 years old. The oversight board will operate independently of the Puerto Rican government and restructure its finances, similar to the oversight boards created in Detroit and New York City. Additionally, PROMESA prevents a taxpayer bailout of Puerto Rico’s debt.

See how your Representative and Senators voted on this legislation.


Senate Democrats block Zika deal, citing partisan provisions


On Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked $1.1 billion Zika deal in 52-48 vote. The deal was part of a larger $82.5 billion annual appropriations bill the House approved 239-171 in a rare late night session, around 3 A.M. last Thursday.

Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017 Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015 (H.R. 2577

Sponsor: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart [R, FL-25]

Democrats called for new talks to revise the bill, criticizing measures such as:

In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan before Tuesday’s vote, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin [D-IL], Chuck Schumer [D-NY] and Patty Murray [D-WA] expressed "…deep disappointment at the inclusion of several poison pill riders.”

"We are writing to urge your cooperation in quickly negotiating an agreement that rejects politicizing disaster response with extreme and unnecessary partisan priorities."

The Obama administration threatened to veto the proposal. Last week, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the bill “falls far short” of the level of funds recommended by health officials and the $1.9 billion requested by President Obama in February. To force a floor vote on President Obama’s request for Zika funding, House Democrats introduced a discharge petition last week. This kind of procedural maneuver would bring the bill to the floor without a committee report and requires 218 signatures from House members. To reach this threshold, Democrats need more than two dozen Republicans to sign on.

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, two-thirds of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” worried about Zika infecting them or a family member. One-third are at least “somewhat worried.” These results indicate that fewer Americans are concerned about the Zika virus than the Ebola epidemic. However, according to a new Kaiser poll, a majority of Americans support funding for Zika research, preventative measures, and family planning services for American women affected by the outbreak.

Obama FOIA reform billImage Source: Susan Walsh/ASSOCIATED PRESS

FOIA reform bill becomes law

President Obama signed bipartisan FOIA reform bill into law, requiring federal agencies to make certain records available for public inspection in an electronic format. The bill also ensures the creation and operation of an online portal where FOIA requests can be submitted to any federal agency though a single website.

According to release from House Oversight and Government Reform, the bill "places the burden on agencies to justify withholding information, instead of on the requester to justify release of said information."

The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent in March, and passed the House by voice vote mid June. (The House approved its own version in January but decided to take up the Senate version rather than merging the bills in a conference committee.)

Watch bill signing.

President Obama commended Congress on moving forward with the "significant and important legislation" and noted the bipartisan compromises that made it possible. White House spokesperson Brandi Hoffine said the bill makes “important upgrades to the FOIA system established nearly 50 years ago." The Administration also suggested that "extending FOIA to Congress would serve as another important step in increasing government transparency." (Currently, FOIA only applies to the executive branch.)

Senate Appropriations clear final spending bill

On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee cleared the 12th and final approps bill of the year. As noted by This Hill, this was the earliest all spending bills have passed committee since 1988. The committee credited the bipartisan cooperation of Chairman Thad Cochran [R, MS] and Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski [D, MD] with the legislative success. Of special note was the first bipartisan health spending bill to clear a Senate committee in seven years.

Nine of the twelve bills are still awaiting a final vote by the full Senate and, of course, resolution with the House, where the appropriations process is not going as well. Check out “Appropriations 101” from the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Passed committee this week:

Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2017 (S. 3117

Sponsor: Sen. Lindsey Graham [R, SC]

Approved 30-0, the $52.08 billion appropriations bill “strengthens federal programs and operations that support national security and American values abroad.”

Read full Committee Report.

Included in the bill (Read summary):

  • $3.4 billion for military aid for Israel
  • $26 million for programs to promote international religious freedom, and $25 million for a new Atrocities Prevention Fund.  
  • $6.1 billion for embassy security
  • $3.06 billion for Migration and Refugee Assistance
  • Continues provisions relating to abortion, including the Tiahrt, Helms, and Kemp-Kasten Amendments.
  • $8.67 billion for Global Health Program
  • $6 billion for global HIV/AIDS assistance

Legislative Lowdown: States Edition

  • Both chambers of the North Carolina legislature passed bill that would deny public access to footage from police body cameras unless a court order is filed. Gov. Pat McCrory [R] is expected to sign bill into law.
  • An Illinois judge ruled Tuesday that the state must add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions that qualify for treatment with medical marijuana. The decision could be rendered moot by pending legislation that would do the same thing.
  • New Jersey Assembly passed a bill to raise the state’s gasoline tax by 23 cents per gallon to fund road and bridge work and cut the sales tax from 7% to 6%. New Jersey Senate refused to take action on the proposal yesterday, leading Gov. Chris Christie [R] to halt all ongoing work paid for by the nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund and declare a state of emergency.
  • Chicago’s city council unanimously approved ordinance to guarantee workers up to five days of paid sick leave. Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the measure as “earned sick leave,” as employees will receive one hour of leave for every 40 hours worked. 
  • California Senate Public Safety Committee advanced bills that would strengthen penalties for those convicted of sexual assault. One bill would mandate prisons sentences for those who sexually assault unconscious victims, and the other would expand the definition of rape to include all types of penetration.
  • Need a weekend read? Take a look at the Pew Stateline blog’s annual Legislative Review, which gives a rundown of state policy and politics since legislatures began their work in January.

New Bills on the Block

Bill Mentions


Weekend Reads

"Fragile States 2016"  from Foreign Policy 

"Refugees Encounter a Foreign World"  by Jodi Kantor and Catrin Einhorn, The New York Times

"Freedom of Information Act: Department of Labor Can Improve Management of Its Program"  from Government Accountability Office