Vote Notes: H.R. 5895, Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act
The House voted today on a bill that provides funding for energy and water projects, military construction and veterans affairs, and the legislative branch for fiscal year 2019. It was labeled a “minibus” because it included three appropriations bills that had been combined into a bigger bill.
I had several problems with the bill and, as a consequence, voted no.
One, from a process standpoint, we’re moving ahead this year in spending money without a budget. Think about that for a second. No matter the merits of the different categories of expenditure in your house, if you just started spending money on the first couple of things that came to mind, I’m not so sure most people would call that financially prudent.
It’s not. The three bills in this minibus are probably the easiest that Congress will have a time passing...so it’s kind of like eating dessert before dinner in picking bills to move forward. And no matter the order of appropriation bills, there ought to be an outline as to where the movie ends, and that’s what a budget is and something that we don’t have at this point this year.
Two, this bill codifies the higher spending that was outlined in the omnibus bill. I haven’t gotten my arms around moving forward on that yet, given the fact that I just voted against the omnibus bill a few weeks ago. For those of us who voted no on the omnibus bill, how do we now turn a few weeks later and vote for the same level of spending that we just voted against?
Let’s get into the weeds for just a second here. What the omnibus bill sets in motion is $1 trillion deficits in essence for the next ten years. And that’s if the economy stays strong, though we’re now in the second-longest economic recovery in American history. I could give you a lot of other statistics that point to the ways in which things at some point might turn downward and, consequently, substantially raise the deficits beyond $1 trillion, but my point here is that setting off on a path that leaves out a budget and codifies big deficits strikes me as a dangerous first step to the appropriations process.
It was for these two primary reasons that I voted no on the bill. Think process and process.
On substance, there were things within this bill that I liked, though they were outweighed by the negatives that I saw with regard to the process questions just mentioned.
The bill provides funding for continued work on the nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. I have long been a supporter of this project, which was needlessly stalled under the Obama Administration. Completing this project will benefit residents in South Carolina in particular, as spent nuclear fuel that is currently being stored temporarily at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County will eventually be transferred to the Yucca Mountain repository. I spoke on the floor with regard to this particular measure in the bill and believe that this was a big win. It still has a long way to go on the Senate side, but Congressman John Shimkus deserves a lot of credit for the way that he pushed this particular provision.
This bill provides an increase in funding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and specifically to its construction account. In total, this bill called for $238 million more for the account than was appropriated last year, and this is important to the Port of Charleston Harbor Deepening project. The bill also includes a provision allowing the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a controversial rule that changes the definition of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act. First proposed in 2014, this rule effectively extends regulatory authority over virtually any groundwater located on public or private property.
On the minus side, I’ll give you an example of the kinds of thing that I didn’t like.
The military construction section of the bill provides $171 milion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account for a program called the European Deterrence Initiative. You may recall that this account is supposed to pay for war fighting and emergency military actions, and it’s for this reason that the total in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account does not get counted against budget capped spending. This bill used substantial amounts of its totals in the OCO account to get around the caps and for operations that were ongoing.
As an example, this bill used a lot of OCO funding for the European Deterrence Initiative. This falls under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO)...which was founded in the aftermath of World War II. Operations that have been in place for more than 50 years hardly fit into the category of emergency overseas contingency funding, and yet it was these sorts of actions that caught my eye in the way that games were being played with funding to go around budget caps. To be specific here, nine air bases in Europe would see expansion and upgrades to their runways as well as fuel storage facilities added to bases that again in many cases have been used since the time of fighting in 1947.
One last point, and that is that there were two amendments that I think are worthy of highlight.
The first amendment was offered by Rep. Don Beyer and would remove a provision in the bill that prohibits the implementation of the National Ocean Policy. To be clear, I think that we need to look at our ocean policy, but the way in which the Obama Administration did it circumvented the legislative process so important to getting different stakeholder opinions in as a part of finding a solution. It was a simple executive order, and this is not the way to legislate. I voted against any number of measures whose foundation I may have believed in, but I believed that they were invalid based on the increasing trend that we see with Republican and Democratic presidents alike attempting to legislate from the executive branch.
The second amendment was offered by Rep. Louie Gohmert and blocked enforcement of an EPA rule called the Social Cost of Carbon. The thinking here was the same. I do believe that there’s a social cost of carbon, and it’s worth exploring different ways in which we might deal with the costs of any byproduct that goes with modern day life. But once again, I don’t think that executive branch agencies should be given license to have a de facto ability to in essence legislate from the executive branch.
The problem with an agency doing so is again different stakeholders do not have a hand in the debate in the way that you see in the legislative process in Congress. This means that things can easily be manipulated to achieve favored outcomes. For instance, under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power plant regulations were predicated on a cost benefit analysis that amounted to $30 billion in 2030. The problem was the same EPA found the domestic benefits were at most $7 billion, but could have been as low as $2 billion. Meanwhile the estimated cost of compliance was going to be $7.3 billion. So what the EPA did in its social cost of carbon measurement was to use global benefits measured against only domestic costs. In the end, the American taxpayer would get fewer climate benefits, but bear the primary cost. I could go on in elaborating on this point, but it’s one that we should all think about when we think about how as a country we balance competing interests in formulating laws that impact people’s lives. We need to get everyone to the table, not have the executive branch move into the world of legislation regardless of their good intent.