What's Up this Fall?

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

Obama administration policy wonks – and congressional Democrat leadership – are hunkered down, furiously trying to figure out how to keep this fall’s legislative rush to judgment from turning into a monumental cow pie. Their GOP brethren are rubbing their hands in glee, anticipating a groundswell of popular support that will sweep them to power a year from now. The rest of us are just scratching our heads. All three states of consciousness are legitimate. Only the head-scratching is particularly timely and/or justified.

Congress will stay in session until some time in December to complete work on a list of policy priorities the Obama administration demands. President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and their lieutenants all understand seriously controversial legislation – and it seems just about everything on the calendar is controversial – never gets done in an election year, and 2010 is shaping up to be a very important election year for both sides of the aisle. The good news is the list of legislative priorities is shrinking as legislative reality begins to rear its ugly head.

Most of September will be taken up by fiscal year 2010 appropriations bills since both appropriations committee chairs vowed they’d pass all 13 spending bills before the new fiscal year began on October 1, 2009. Then the truly heavy lifting begins.

The 800-pound gorilla is healthcare reform, the highest priority for the White House and Democrat leaders as witnessed by the president’s rare address to a joint session of Congress in September. Healthcare was one of President Obama’s lynchpin campaign issues and he’s obsessed with passing some form of reform this year. If victorious, he’d be the first president in 75 years to prevail on massive healthcare expansion.

The 1,018-page House bill notwith-standing, this is a wide-open issue being slowly but ever more directly shaped by citizen public reaction to not only the bill’s price tag – a Congressional Budget Office estimated $1 trillion to $2 trillion – but also by what’s perceived to be the heart of the package, namely a government-sponsored competitor to private health insurance. The other major sticking point is whether to tax or penalize companies not offering healthcare plans. Also directly affecting how this bill evolves is the 2010 election and whether sitting members listen to constituents or decide they’ve got a higher moral calling and vote “what’s right for the country,” which will be pretty much decided by party leadership.

All decks are clear for the healthcare debate, but the wrangling could take weeks or months. The president’s September speech left unclear whether he’s willing to go back to square one and begin fashioning a new bill that follows his priorities while recognizing the concerns of the GOP, or whether he’ll try to massage some existing plan to look more like his vision of healthcare reform. He also claims he can pay for nearly all of his vision through waste control in Medicare, and multiplying the federal deficit is a non-starter for many critics.

The first action will be in the Senate when the Senate Finance Committee takes up a money plan devised by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), committee chair, and a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). Baucus talked tough when unveiling his plan just days before the president’s speech, saying he’d “go it alone” if he doesn’t get bipartisan support. This gives credence to talk on the street that the money side of healthcare reform may move as part of a budget reconciliation bill this fall, action needing only 51 votes to pass, not the 60-vote supermajority needed for most other bills. But even with only a one-vote margin needed to pass, the votes still aren’t there at this writing as moderate and conservative members from both sides of the aisle – not to mention those just plain scared of the voters at home – will not commit to either side of the debate. The rest of the plan – program, mandates, options, etc. – would move as a separate bill or bills, and could wait until next year.

Next up is climate change/cap and trade legislation. This bill should have been ready for Senate committee action earlier this summer – given Pelosi and Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) rammed their version through the House by one vote – but the White House signaled the hill to let it sit until healthcare reform is completed. This strategy decision came even as the White House continued to say it needed a federal greenhouse emissions program in order to impress other nations at a December 2009 United Nations conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The action also gives both opponents and supporters time to rally their constituents.

The ugliness that escaped various business interests during the House battle is strongly under attack in the Senate by manufacturers, agriculture interests, small business, etc., namely the disproportionate economic impact of the cap and trade program on rural and agriculture interests, including food processors. The House bill also fails to recognize the need to provide to rural and ag interests a greater percentage of the emissions credits contemplated by a cap and trade program, critics say, and feed companies, food companies, and millers are scared silly over provisions that would allow producers to opt out of crop production, choosing to plant trees on farmland instead. Giving proponents heartaches are senators from the heavy coal states in the Midwest, South, and West who believe their states will lose big from anything that resembles the House-passed bill.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations, were “ordered” to have jointly drafted climate change legislation in the hands of their respective members by the end of August. That deadline has now slipped until at least the end of September. Further, there are four other committees, including the Senate Agriculture Committee, which must markup and approve whatever measure Boxer and Kerry come up with. Leader Reid has abandoned a September 28, 2009, deadline to get the bill ready for floor action.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will likely begin the long and arduous task for regulating greenhouse gas emissions now that it’s finalized its health “endangerment” finding on carbon dioxide. This rulemaking process takes some political pressure off Congress to act on climate change, and the agency has said it intends to only regulate “large” emitters, those shown to be belching into the air 24,000 tons or more per year.

Baucus, while hip deep in both healthcare reform and climate change, must also get his committee to act on routine and demanding tax issues, such as extending yet again a package of tax/credit extensions, including those for biofuels, which involves animal fat-based biodiesel. He’s signaled he’s ready to move the extenders, but he needs floor time, and he’s got to decide whether to move the extenders as a separate tax package or opt to move an extenders bill as part of other moving legislation, including the climate change bill if that develops momentum later this year.

Also pending is comprehensive food safety legislation. Again, the House has already passed its version of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority reform, a bipartisan bill that was negotiated with industry. While the House bill is good, earlier bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) is better, but needs the HELP committee to bless it for floor action. Again, the sticking point on these bills is their cost – both bills are massive expansions of FDA authority, paid for by new user fees for FDA registration, re-inspection, export certification, etc. The bills also mandate risk-based hazard control programs, new paperwork requirements, mandatory recall, and a host of FDA program tweaking.

Food safety could be the fill-in action for stalled healthcare or climate change legislation, meaning its schedule for consideration could be dramatically accelerated if both major priority packages flounder and floor time opens up. Also affecting how far Congress wants or needs to go on food safety reform is a White House working group on food safety, a joint effort of several departments and agencies with responsibility for keeping the nation’s food safe. This working group effort has been aggressive all summer and with some of the changes it’s wrought administratively, could signal a pared back food safety bill will hit the president’s desk.

Changing of the Chairs
With the death of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the HELP committee with oversight of all things related to FDA, food safety, labor, and so forth, the inevitable game of committee chairmanship musical chairs played out in mid-September, with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) taking over the reins at HELP. Harkin’s chair over at the Agriculture Committee is taken by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), a move strongly supported by most ag groups.

Speculation was Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), next ranking behind Kennedy on HELP, would give up his chair at the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to take HELP. However, Dodd faces the tightest race of his career in a state that’s littered with insurance and financial companies, and their executives, and with Congress getting set to reregulate financial markets, bowing out of his current role would have been politically unwise.

Harkin will retain his seat on the ag committee, as well as his subcommittee chair on the Senate Committee on Appropriations that oversees labor and health spending – not a bad pairing with the committee that authorizes the programs for which new spending may be needed. Several insiders bet the farm Harkin would never give up the ag panel based on his state’s interests. However, with the painful 2008 farm bill behind him and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) also on the ag committee, Iowa is well taken care of. Harkin’s true love has long been health-related issues and the HELP chair must be a dream come true for the 69-year-old Iowan.

Lincoln, who started her Capitol Hill career as a receptionist in the office of former Representative Bill Alexander (D-AR), moved up to handle Alexander’s ag issues and then challenged her former boss in the Democrat primary for his seat, is a conservative to moderate Democrat with strong bipartisan credentials. During the farm bill debate, while remaining a good lieutenant to Harkin, Lincoln and committee ranking member Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) forged a strong and effective southern caucus that fought to maintain traditional farm programs needed by the smaller producers in their part of the country. She’s also less likely to follow Harkin’s lead on his anti-corporate agriculture/contracting campaign, but with both Harkin and Grassley aligned on this one, her work is cut out for her.

The rise to chair also helps Lincoln in her 2010 reelection bid. She’s already come out against climate change/cap and trade legislation for all the right reasons, and moving her to ag committee chair puts her in position to begin delivering a lot more to her largely rural state.

View from Washington – October 2009 RENDER | back