Government Affairs Roundup
“Your Timely Roundup of Local, State, and Federal Updates”
Congress is back to work and they have a list of items that will need to be tackled before additional vacations. Things are a little quiet on the Illinois news side, but we’re looking at what the next session will entail as they’re going to shorten session by about 7 weeks. See below for the full roundup.
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Biden Signs $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill into Law
President Biden signed into law a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill meant to repair the nation’s aging roads and bridges, upgrade the electrical grid and expand access to broadband internet.
The legislation, the largest federal investment in infrastructure in more than a decade, is a central component of Mr. Biden’s domestic-policy agenda and marks a rare bipartisan policy win for the White House.
Finding the Bridge to the Bridges
A magic wand doesn’t make the ink from President Biden’s pen magically turn into a new tunnel or expanded port. The in-between details, of how money gets distributed, how these projects get built, and what roadblocks lie ahead, are just as critical as the bill’s negotiation.
The money for all of these infrastructure projects, how and where does this get distributed?
The short answer is that it depends! For transportation infrastructure — separate from, say, broadband funds — there are basically two kinds of funding. Most of that money will be run through a series of long-established (and complicated) funding formulas that determine how much each state Transportation Department will receive. There are some strings associated with how they spend that money, but largely it’s up to them how to allocate it. California may want to use their money to build electric vehicle charging stations, but Nebraska may want to bolster its road networks, for instance. Then a smaller chunk of that money will go into discretionary grants that DOT will award as part of competitions. It looks like the first of those grant programs is going to end up related to port infrastructure, with supply chain problems front of mind.
With the above caveats in mind, broadly, are there any roadblocks that may delay these projects or their funding that officials are worried about?
The formulas are set in statute, so politically speaking there’s not really anything that can be done to influence how those funds get awarded. They’re based on things like a state’s population, how many miles of roads it has, or what its road fatality numbers look like. The competitive grant program is also really at the sole discretion of DOT, and any state or city or program that’s eligible for those funds can apply. That said, money for infrastructure projects at this level tends to spend slowly, because these typically are often larger, multi-year projects. And this is a LOT of money! So people will have to be hired to run these programs, and businesses will have to have a fresh influx of workers to build the things we fund, too. So there’s going to be some lag time here, and that can be a political disadvantage. During the Obama administration there was a great frustration that people didn’t know that the road project happening down the street was funded by the stimulus — so they ordered that these projects have signs posted identifying them as a stimulus project.
During that Obama era we heard the term “shovel ready” a lot. Do the projects outlined in this bill reflect more “shovel ready” projects, or is there a longer-term view?
We haven’t seen as much rhetorical emphasis certainly, instead the words seen used by the Biden administration use are “shovel-worthy.” They’re very sensitive to the critiques about the Obama-era stimulus. That being said, there’s obviously also an interest in projects that can be started and finished in a reasonable time, and that would mean looking for worthy projects to fund that are already somewhere in the planning pipeline.
How about other factors like climate change and equity? How do these factor into the planning of which projects will be built first?
We will see that mostly with DOT’s discretionary programs, where they have more latitude to change the criteria for awarding projects — and with both equity and climate change avowed goals of the Biden administration I expect both of those things will be baked into most if not all of what DOT does with its discretionary funds. The infrastructure bill also for the first time creates a new program — importantly, with dedicated funding — and its sole purpose is to fix previous harms done to minority communities.
What’s the one thing the transportation team will be looking out for most as funding starts being doled out?
The old adage in journalism is follow the money. How the administration spends the money, in service of what goal, will say a lot about what it really finds important. As in everything, we’ll be watching for whether the administration’s actions live up to their promises.
The Next Bill Signing
House Democrats are eager to pass President Biden’s $1.75 trillion social and climate spending bill this week before leaving for Thanksgiving recess. Both chambers of Congress were out last week for Veterans Day. They are expected to be out next week for Thanksgiving and are hoping to leave for Christmas by Dec. 13. So each day they are in D.C. really matters.
Do Democrats have the votes? They sure hope they do. A handful of moderate House Dems said they wanted to see details from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) before voting. But they have vowed to support the bill this week, so stay tuned!
OK, let’s say House Democrats pass the bill this week — then what happens? Those battles will continue in the Senate, which is unlikely to take action on the measure before December. Centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — whose arguments have helped whittle the once $3.5 trillion package in half — have yet to formally back the measure, and more changes are possible.
Why this comes at a particularly important moment for the White House: Democrats are under fire for a host of disturbing economic trends, including a spike in inflation, a private sector labor shortage and a supply chain bottleneck that’s hindered retail markets — all while the COVID-19 crisis continues to frustrate federal efforts to keep it in check.
CBO to release Build Back Better score on Friday
House Democrats on Monday inched closer to a pre-Thanksgiving vote on President Biden’s sweeping social benefits and climate package, as Congress’s official scorekeeper issued new cost estimates demanded by a group of centrist holdouts and party leaders charged ahead with plans to bring the legislation to the floor before the weekend.
The two new fiscal reports, released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), detailed only portions of the massive $1.75 trillion legislation. But they were accompanied by the announcement that the CBO also intends to wrap up its full budget-impact analysis by day’s end on Friday — a quicker timeline than previously suggested, and one raising the prospects that the House will move the measure this week.
Centrist Democrats hailed the announcement — while stressing their demand for official word that the new wave of spending would not add to federal deficits.
Congress barrels toward end-of-year pileup
Congress is facing a legislative pileup as it barrels toward the end of the year with a lengthy to-do list. The House and Senate returned Monday and are scheduled to be in session for roughly two weeks before the end of 2021, setting up a legislative squeeze that is threatening to drive lawmaking deeper into the holiday season.
Democrats, facing increasingly sharp headwinds as they move toward the 2022 midterms, want to deliver big wins by the end of President Biden’s first year. But they have to juggle their party’s political ambitions with must-pass bills that threaten to eat up shrinking floor time.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned of a grueling end-of-year schedule in a letter to Senate Democrats on Sunday, noting it will “likely take some long nights and weekends.”
“I ask that you please keep your schedule flexible for the remainder of the calendar year,” he said.
Here’s what is on Congress’s end-of-year to-do list:
Lawmakers have a matter of days to come up with an agreement to fund the government and avoid an early-December shutdown. Congress previously passed a short-term bill to keep the government open through Dec. 3 and is expected to need to use another continuing resolution (CR), which funds the government at current levels, to keep the lights on.
Senate Republicans are pitching a yearlong CR, which would fund the government through Sept. 30. But Democrats are pushing back on that, with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) warning that the “impacts of a full-year CR are too onerous for the country to bear.”
The White House is trying to build pressure on lawmakers to reach a deal on fiscal 2022 funding, which would include new funding levels and priorities, and avoid a funding patch, a tall lift given the current state of talks.
Democrats haven’t yet put forward a CR proposal of their own, but lawmakers in the past have used short-term funding bills through late February or early March as a way to buy themselves more time.
“We could have a short-term deal and see if we could do something before Christmas or a little longer, maybe to February or March. We don’t know yet,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
The Senate is “likely” to bring a massive defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the floor this week, according to Schumer, amid delays on the reconciliation bill.
The bill, which lays out spending levels and policy for the Pentagon, typically passes each year with a wide bipartisan margin. But because the bill has must-pass status, it’s a magnet for hundreds of potential amendments.
The House passed its version of the defense bill in September. But the upper chamber’s legislation has been in limbo after getting approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee in July.
The delay has sparked frustration from Republicans and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who told reporters that he thought not bringing it up was an “unforced error” on Schumer’s part.
Once the Senate passes its bill, it still needs to formally negotiate a final compromise with the House.
Schumer said senators are considering adding a competitiveness bill that passed the Senate earlier this year but stalled in the House to the bill. They are also expected to use the NDAA as a vehicle for approving a repeal of the 2002 Iraq War authorization.
Congress passed a short-term debt hike earlier this year that congressional aides, citing Treasury estimates, predicted would keep the government solvent through roughly Dec. 3.
But senators in both parties believe they have more time to pass another increase in the debt ceiling, with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) describing it as a “December problem.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center has estimated that Congress will need to act as soon as mid-December or as late as February.
Democrats haven’t yet said how they will raise the debt ceiling. Republicans faced fierce backlash from their own caucus after they helped break a filibuster on the short-term debt extension after months of vowing that they would make Democrats go it alone.
Another down-to-the-wire standoff will likely up pressure to exempt the debt ceiling from the legislative filibuster, but some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), are pushing to raise the debt ceiling on their own through reconciliation if they can’t get a deal with Republicans.
Democratic leadership has been loath to put that option. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer didn’t close the door completely in recent interviews, with Pelosi telling CNN that it was “one path.”
Senate Democrats are ramping up their efforts to figure out a way to find a path forward on voting rights legislation, including discussing potential changes to the Senate rules.
A group of senators, including Senate Rules Committee Chairman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), have been tapped to come up with ideas and lead the discussions within the caucus.
Voting rights are viewed as a top priority for Biden and progressive activists as GOP-controlled legislatures across the country debate, and in some cases pass, new voting laws following the 2020 election.
While Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) view a bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would expand the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a springboard for negotiations, Democrats are skeptical they’ll be able to come up with a deal that could get at least 10 Republicans.
Instead, Schumer has vowed that Democrats will study “alternative paths” to go it alone. Democrats and outside groups are floating a range of potential options, including creating a carveout for voting rights, changing the number of votes needed to break a filibuster or even unrelated, smaller rules changes such as streamlining amendments and nominations.
Any change would need to garner support from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who are opposed to nixing the filibuster. Manchin has rejected the idea of a carve out.
“A number of our colleagues – with my full support – have been discussing ideas for how to restore the Senate to protect our democracy. Those conversations will continue in earnest this coming week,” Schumer wrote in his letter to Senate Democrats.
Federal appeals court affirms hold on Biden vaccine rule for large companies
A Biden administration rule requiring large companies to mandate COVID vaccines for employees or impose weekly testing is “staggeringly overbroad” and “grossly exceeds [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s] statutory authority,” a federal appeals court said Friday in an order to keep the rule on hold.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit acknowledged the pandemic is “tragic and devastating,” but said the administration has not proved “COVID-19 poses the kind of emergency that allows OSHA to take the extreme measure.” The court initially paused the rule’s implementation over the weekend. Plaintiffs who brought the case include Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.
What they’re saying: “Today’s decision is just the beginning of the process for review of this important OSHA standard,” the DOJ said in a statement to Axios. “The Department will continue to vigorously defend the standard and looks forward to obtaining a definitive resolution following consolidation of all of the pending cases for further review,” the statement added.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling a “massive victory” on Twitter.
What to watch: The 5th Circuit will not be the only court to rule on the mandate, the New York Times writes. Some challenges have been brought in other circuits. The cases will ultimately be consolidated in one randomly chosen federal appeals court.
The issue is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court.
How does OSHA plan to enforce this?
Many experts expect the enforcement to look something more like a recordkeeping check — making sure companies are verifying their workers are vaccinated and keeping an eye on who is testing positive or negative and ensuring unvaccinated workers are masking in the workplace.
OSHA does have the authority to issue fines for bad actors, but often fines are reduced if companies work to correct the issues and show that they are making an effort to comply. The maximum penalty amount for “serious” fines from OSHA are currently $13,653 per violation.
Vice President – Government Affairs
Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry