Vote Notes: More Omnibus Amendments
Hope your day has been good. Mine has entailed visits up toward the Summerville area today, and I’ll be down in Beaufort County tomorrow.
At office hours today up in Summerville, we got into a robust debate on health care, civil liberty, and more….and under the category of debate, I wanted to include an explanation for a few more of last week’s amendments to the omnibus bill.
To start, there were a number of amendments offered to various sections of the bill designed to reduce its overall spending levels. One, offered by Congressman Glenn Grothman, would have cut 5% from the overall budget of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF), reducing overall spending in the bill by $64.7 million. A second, offered by Rep. Paul Mitchell, would have cut 10% from the salaries, expenses, and administration budgets of several federal agencies and offices funded in the Financial Services and General Government section of the bill, including the Treasury Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of Fiscal Service, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Small Business Administration. In total, this amendment would have reduced overall spending in the bill by nearly $600 million. Finally, a third amendment offered by Rep. Marsha Blackburn would have imposed a 1% cut across the entire Labor, Health, and Human Services section of the bill, resulting in an overall spending reduction of $1.58 billion.
Cutting spending somewhere is vital, but this Congress is unwilling to do it. I voted in favor of all three of these amendments, which would have reduced overall spending in the bill by a combined $2.26 billion, but none of them passed.
There were two noteworthy amendments offered by Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Indiana to the Interior and Environment section of the bill. The first blocks enforcement of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule requiring oil and gas operators to reduce the amount of natural gas and methane that escapes as a regular consequence of drilling. The main point of this rule is to encourage oil and gas operators to capture the natural gas and methane they would simply vent into the atmosphere. They could instead capture it and sell it. This would be good for the atmosphere and good for energy independence. Often, natural gas and methane produced during drilling is burnt off, as it is less valuable than petroleum and therefore nets less of a profit. The total value of the methane and natural gas burnt off in drilling operations each year is estimated to be $330 million. Capturing and using this gas, which is cleaner burning than petroleum, seems to me reasonable. I voted against the amendment, but it passed, 218-195.
The second Mullin amendment blocks enforcement of another EPA rule called the Social Cost of Carbon. This rule is an attempt by the EPA to put a cost-per-ton on carbon emissions. The cost estimate is predicated on a faulty discount rate for the cost of the regulations associated with preventing emissions. While the historic discount rate is 7%, the Office of Management and Budget recommended 5%, and the EPA opted for 3%. Only with that very low discount rate, along with a multiple-century time horizon, does the regulation pass a cost-benefit analysis. This rule is a prime example of the federal government using fuzzy economic math to justify a burdensome regulation. I therefore voted in favor of this amendment, which passed, 225-186.
An amendment offered by Rep. Ralph Norman would have cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 25%. I saw it as a chance to send a message. A 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office showed the ways in which the EPA has simply refused to inventory personnel...over the last twenty years. How can you effectively administer help, when you don't know where people are in your organization?
This report also showed how the EPA could improve efficiency and reduce costs. For example, funding for grants to organizations at the state and local levels constitutes nearly half of the EPA’s entire budget at $3.9 billion. Yet, the report demonstrated how these grants were subject to very little oversight and are often spent inefficiently. Administrative costs in publically-funded grant programs are routinely higher, as a percentage of a program’s overall budget, than privately-funded programs.
A proposal to reducing funding would hopefully wake the agency up on the need for accountability. I therefore voted in favor of the amendment, which failed, 151-260.
There were several amendments to the section of the bill dealing with Labor, Health, and Human Services worth mentioning. One amendment offered by Rep. Rosa DeLauro imposes a 63% cut to the general management budget for the Department of Health and Human Services in order to increase the budget for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s mental health programs by 25%. A cut this large to the general management budget would essentially cripple the entire Department of Health and Human Services. The amendment would also make a smaller, offsetting cut to the general management budget for the Department of Education. In other words, it cuts from education funding to help pay for a large increase in mental health services. Although I voted against the amendment, it passed, 225-192.
An amendment offered by Rep. Joe Courtney would have reduced funding for charter schools while increasing funding for magnet schools. Charter schools are privately-run schools that receive some percentage of public funding but are not administered by the public school system. For a variety of reasons, charter schools tend to do better than public schools in terms of student performance, despite spending less per student. Magnet schools are public schools that focus on a specific kind of education style or curriculum, such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), Career and Technical Education (CTE), and language immersion. Magnet schools are not bound by traditional district boundaries and can usually enroll students from any part of a public school system. As a result, magnet schools often have long waiting lists. Furthermore, because they are fully public, magnet schools are subject to all the same rules, regulations, restrictions, and costs as regular public schools. To some degree, this amendment pitted one piece of choice against another in education - but given I have long believed in the notion of maximizing choice in education, I voted against the amendment, which failed, 204-212.
An amendment offered by Rep. Jason Lewis would have increased funding for Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs by 4%, with an offsetting reduction of 3.4% to the higher education budget. CTE programs provide academic and technical skills, knowledge and training for career paths that require high levels of technical skill but not necessarily a traditional, four-year liberal arts education. According to the Construction Labor Market Analyzer, the construction industry will face a shortfall of approximately 1.1 million skilled workers over the next decade. Access to high-quality CTE programs will be crucial to making up employment shortfalls in many technical and manufacturing professions. Furthermore, students in CTE programs tend to drop out of school less frequently than average students. The graduation rate for high school students focusing on CTE education is 93%, compared to 80% for all high school students. While I voted for the amendment, it failed, 153-263-1.
Another amendment offered by Congressman Glenn Grothman would have cut $99,000,000 from the budget for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would have still been allocated $150,000,000 under the bill. Since 1990, the workload of the NLRB has decreased significantly. The NLRB received 65% fewer election petitions and 40% fewer unfair labor practice charges in 2014 than it did in 1990. Despite the decrease in workload, the NLRB’s budget has increased by 15% over that same period of time. While I voted for the amendment, it failed, 175-241.
An amendment offered by Rep. Mark Meadows would have reduced the size of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Program Area of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which currently includes 964 employees whose annual salaries total $78,970,000. Over the past five years, the number of functioning coal mines in the United States has dropped by 35% and the number of coal miners by 43%. Yet, staffing levels within the Coal Mine Safety and Health Program Area have remained essentially unchanged. Is this not crazy?
If your needs for a service drop, in the real world you make adjustments. Not in government! Forty-three percent less demand…and you keep your employment count the same? While I voted for the amendment, it failed, 178-238-1.
Moving on to the Financial Services and General Government section of the bill, an amendment offered by Rep. Bill Posey would have removed the current Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John Koskinen. This amendment would have taken advantage of something called the Holman Rule, which allows Congress to essentially fire a federal employee by eliminating funding for their salary. Commissioner Koskinen obstructed the congressional investigation into the targeting of conservative nonprofit groups at the IRS, specifically on two occasions in which he gave false testimony under oath in congressional hearings.
Taking action here is important because one of Congress’s main roles is oversight, and not laying out a consequence for Commissioner Koskinen’s actions is to have hearings with words but no oversight with action. Congressional action also works to prevent executive overreach and helps ensure that the IRS plays by the rules. After all, the business of targeting certain political groups is certainly not the proper role of the IRS. This whole thing is what sickens people about government. A guy lies under oath, but he keeps his job. The president has not done anything here because there is friendship. Congress is the last one standing who might take action, so I voted for the amendment, but it unfortunately failed, 186-223.
Finally, an amendment offered by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton would have removed language from the bill blocking enforcement of the District of Columbia’s Local Budget Autonomy Act. The Constitution provides Congress “exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over” the District of Columbia. The Local Budget Autonomy Act is an attempt to roll back Congress’s oversight of the District of Columbia’s budget and therefore is in direct conflict with the Constitution. Even the Government Accountability Office has determined that the provisions within the Local Budget Autonomy Act that change Congress’s role in the D.C. budget process have no force of law. The District of Columbia is not a state, nor did the framers of the Constitution intend it to ever become one. Instead, as the seat of the federal government, Washington, D.C. derives real and certain benefits…but they are offset by specific limitations to DC power. Therefore, the federal government’s role in its budget process is wholly appropriate and in accordance with the Constitution. I therefore voted against the amendment, which failed, 186-222.