Amendments to Senate NDAA (S. 1519)

The Senate is currently considering the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018 (S. 1519), and multiple amendment votes are expected throughout the week.  In the House, Heritage Action key voted multiple amendments on H.R. 2810, including those related to Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), Davis-Bacon prevailing wage provisions, Buy America protections, amnesty related provisions, and funding for gender transitions (see here). Similar amendments are expected in the Senate, and Heritage Action reserves the right to key vote these amendments and others throughout the course of the debate.

The Heritage Foundation’s recommendations for the 2018 NDAA can be found here.

Key Vote: “NO” on Pelosi-Schumer-Trump Debt Ceiling Deal

On Wednesday, the House passed a $7.85 billion emergency spending measure to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s dwindling disaster relief fund by a vote of 419 – 3.  Last week, Heritage Action said the measure was “largely encouraging” as 95 percent of the spending was targeted to FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which is expected to run out of money at the end of the week due to ongoing efforts in response to Hurricane Harvey.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans agreed to link that much-need emergency spending to a suspension of our nation’s debt ceiling, and the administration ultimately agreed with congressional Democrats that the debt ceiling suspension should last less than three months. As a result, the Senate will soon vote to amend the House-passed Harvey bill with McConnell Amendment 808. That amendment would:

  • Provide $7.4 billion in emergency funding for FEMA’s dwindling disaster relief fund,  $450 million for the SBA, and another $7.4 billion for Community Development Block Grant program, which the president’s budget eliminated;
  • Suspend our nation’s statutory limit until December 8, allowing Treasury to borrow unlimited sums of money;
  • Extend government funding, scheduled to expire after September 30, through December 8, 2017; and,
  • Extend various other expiring programs, such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) through December 8 as well.

Last weekend on Fox News Sunday, Heritage Action’s chief executive officer Michael A. Needham cautioned that linking any debt ceiling suspension to emergency spending would be “exploiting this hurricane and people who lost their houses to allow business as usual in Washington” to continue.  The Heritage Foundation added, “Congress can provide targeted, appropriate disaster relief without an irresponsible hike in the debt limit” and urged Congress to avoid “exploiting the goodwill of the American people to assist their fellow Americans when disaster strikes.”  

Beyond the politics of exploiting hurricane victims and potentially delaying much-needed disaster relief, the proposed combination is wrong on policy grounds.

First, our nation’s debt ceiling should be used as an opportunity to address the federal government’s spending addiction and ultimately get our nation on a path to balance. In August, Heritage Action explained that “Our nation’s structural deficit is driven by historically irresponsible levels of federal spending” and that any increase “should be paired with serious spending reforms that begin reducing federal spending in real, meaningful ways.”  The Heritage Foundation urges Congress and the Trump administration to “adopt spending cuts and critical reforms” along with any debt ceiling:

“A fiscal crisis that forces lawmakers to take action when investors lose confidence in the U.S. government would have far worse consequences than deliberate congressional action now, to ensure that necessary government functions are sustained.”

In a letter to congressional leaders, Heritage Action and nine other conservative groups reminded Republican leaders they argued in 2011 when Barack Obama was president that “a debt limit increase was fiscally irresponsible and could not pass the House of Representatives without corresponding spending cuts.” The letter continues:

“The United States’ fiscal situation has only gotten worse. … With such an ominous picture facing our country, a debt ceiling increase would send a signal that congressional Republicans are not serious about tackling these challenges and that past words were only convenient rhetorical tools with which to criticize a Democratic administration.”

Second, a “suspension” of the debt ceiling is a political gambit to avoid fiscal responsibility.  The Heritage Foundation explains that “With a debt limit suspension, Congress effectively abdicates its constitutional power to control the borrowing of the federal government.” It also allows lawmakers to avoid explaining the full amount of the new debt that will be incurred. Also, because Treasury will be able to use extraordinary measures again on December 9, timing of the next debt ceiling deadline is uncertain.

Third, as Heritage Action explained to the New York Times, it is political malpractice to put “conservative lawmakers — including those from Texas — ‘in a pretty difficult political situation’ by essentially daring them to vote against a measure containing both Harvey aid and an increase to the debt limit.” The Senate’s inclusion of $7.4 billion in “emergency” funding for the HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program suggests the Harvey relief process is quickly becoming a swamp-like boondoggle. Additionally, Democrats — now in the political minority — suddenly view the nation’s debt ceiling as legislative leverage to advance their big-spending, progressive agenda.

Any increase in our nation’s debt ceiling should be paired with reforms that deliver on then-candidate Trump’s promise to “start to pay[ing] down our $19 trillion in debt.” According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the debt limit “imposes a form of fiscal accountability” when the federal government spends more money than it collects. The goal of the century-old debt limit was to maintain a congressional check on the increasingly common and complex activity of borrowing. It is irresponsible and reprehensible for Congress to use much-needed Harvey-related spending to bypass this important fiscal check.

***Heritage Action opposes efforts to tie the debt ceiling to emergency disaster spending and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.***       

Co-Sponsorship of the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act (H.R. 2832 / S. 1290)

The Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act (H.R. 2832 & S. 1290), introduced by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), would help reduce poverty and government dependency, increase self-sufficiency, restore families, and strengthen the effective and popular work requirements on means-tested welfare programs that have been gutted by the Obama administration.

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which became popularly known as “welfare reform,” into law. The legislation transformed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program intended to provide temporary financial assistance to low-income families while encouraging work and self-sufficiency. Most significantly, the 1996 welfare reform included mandatory federal work requirements, stipulating that welfare recipients must be engaged in work or some type of work activity in order to receive TANF benefits.

According to Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, and Rachel Sheffield’s paper Setting Priorities for Welfare Reform:

“Mandatory federal work requirements for recipients were at the heart of the change, which led to significant decreases in the program’s rolls, increased work among former recipients, and historic reductions in child poverty.”

Despite the success of the 1996 welfare reform, 20 years later there’s still much to be done to ensure that the welfare system moves people toward work and self-sufficiency rather than toward government dependency. Rector and Sheffield continue:

“The United States’ means-tested welfare system [still] consists of over 80 programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Total annual spending on these programs reached $1 trillion in 2015. More than 75 percent of this funding comes from the federal government….

“Although the welfare reform of the 1990s was popular and initially successful, it was actually quite limited. Of 80 welfare programs, only TANF was reformed, and even in TANF, the vigor of reform has nearly disappeared.”

Rep. Jordan and Sen. Lee have restarted the conversation, advocating for conservative reforms that will help reduce poverty and government dependency, increase self-sufficiency, restore families, and strengthen the effective and popular work requirements that have been gutted by the Obama administration. These ideas, and more, are found in the most comprehensive and serious welfare reform legislation introduced since Republicans regained control of Congress in 2010: The newly reintroduced Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act (H.R. 2832/S. 1290).

The bill contains five major policy reforms:

  1.      Improves accounting of government welfare spending by requiring the federal government to report all means-tested welfare spending–including state and local––as well as to report estimated spending levels over the next decade.
  2.      Strengthens work requirements for all able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDS) who receive food stamps (SNAP). Similar reforms have been implemented in Maine, Kansas, and Alabama with great success. It also creates a new work requirement for parents in SNAP, modeled after the 1996 TANF law.
  3.      Strengthens TANF work requirements by implementing a new “work preparation requirement” for the 50% of the TANF caseload that is currently completely idle.
  4.      Phases down the federal involvement in subsidized housing programs by decreasing the federal share of funding by 50% over ten years and transferring fiscal responsibility for these programs to the states.
  5.      Prohibits any funding for abortion.

While there is more to be done to achieve comprehensive welfare reform, such as rooting out fraud in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit and eliminating marriage penalties, Senator Lee and Congressman Jordan’s Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act is not just a white paper, but a serious and significant first step toward real welfare reform.

This bill builds on the successful 1996 law by restoring and strengthening TANF work requirements and by placing real work requirements into SNAP, the second largest means-tested welfare program in operation today. It requires accountability for welfare spending and moves toward creating true federalism in America’s welfare system. If enacted, this legislation would be the start of Welfare Reform 2.0, by compassionately encouraging work while saving the taxpayers trillions of dollars over the next twenty years.

Heritage Action supports H.R. 2832 / S. 1290 and will include CO-SPONSORSHIP of this legislation in our scorecard.

 

Co-Sponsorship of the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act (H.R. 719 / S. 221)

The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act (H.R. 719 & S. 221), introduced by Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), would allow states to opt out of programs that fall under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — and repurpose those federal funds on a consolidated basis “to advance the educational policy of the State.”

During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to return educational decision making back to the state and local level by ending common core and prompting school choice. A-PLUS would go a long way in fulfilling this promise by potentially transferring $23 billion in funding that currently goes to ineffective and duplicative federal programs authorized by ESSA, to state-run educational programs that better target the needs of local communities.

According to Lindsey Burke, Director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, the A-PLUS Act would:

“Give flexibility to states and local communities, reduce administrative costs and the federal compliance burden associated with accessing federal education funding; and free states and localities from their role as compliance entities subordinate to the federal government, making them accountable to parents and taxpayers instead.”

State and local governments finance 90 percent of all K-12 education spending but must comply with burdensome federal mandates and regulations or risk losing billions in federal funding. This federal overreach hinders the ability of state and local governments from engaging in innovative educational initiatives, such as school choice programs like the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

School choice programs put parents, not federal bureaucrats or unions, in charge of their children’s education and makes local schools more accountable to parents and taxpayers. The A-PLUS Act would free up states through additional resources and less federal mandates, allowing them to pursue student-centered education reforms. Burke writes:

“Language within the A-PLUS proposal explicitly recognizes that accountability is strengthened when directed toward parents. Allowing states to put their dollars toward state and locally determined priorities would enable them to respond more directly to parents and taxpayers. Specifically, and with conservative leadership at the helm in most states, it would create space for states to establish and grow choice-based options for families—the ultimate accountability mechanism.”

With a unified Republican government and the vast majority of House Republicans having already voted for A-PLUS last session, now is the time for Congress to begin to restore federalism in education, empower parents and students, and remove archaic obstacles that have prevented true opportunity for all.

Heritage Action supports H.R. 719 and S. 221 and will include CO-SPONSORSHIP of this legislation in our scorecard.

Co-Sponsorship of the Agency Accountability Act (H.R. 850 / S. 299)

The Agency Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R. 850 & S. 299), introduced by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), would restore Congress’ power of the purse found in Article I of the Constitution over unelected federal bureaucrats by requiring “any agency that receives a fee, fine, penalty, or proceeds from a settlement” to “deposit such amount in the general fund of the Treasury.”  

Under current law, federal agencies that confiscate taxpayer dollars through fines, fees and proceeds from legal settlements — such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Financial Stability Oversight Council — may repurpose those dollars as they see fit. The Agency Accountability Act would subject this revenue to the regular appropriations process and empower lawmakers, not federal bureaucrats, to determine how best to allocate scarce resources.

Justin Bogie, The Heritage Foundation’s Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs, explains:

“Under current law, agencies have the ability to use funds received through fines, fees, and proceeds from legal settlements without going through the formal appropriations process, thus avoiding congressional oversight.

“The Agency Accountability Act seeks to correct this problem by requiring that (with limited exceptions) any fees, fines, penalties, or proceeds from a legal settlement be deposited into the Treasury’s general fund. The funds would then be available to the respective agencies, but only through the formal appropriations process.”

This legislation restores power back to Congress to make funding decisions. It also increases transparency within federal agencies by shining a light on the amount of revenue raised from agency fees and penalties, and the source of that revenue. Bogie continues:

“According to a report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agencies collected $83 billion in fines between fiscal years 2010 and 2015. The committee found that the amount of power given to agencies to pursue penalties and legal settlements allows them to act as both judge and jury.

“By forcing agencies to return these revenues to the Treasury’s general fund before they are appropriated back to the agencies, Congress would be able to fully account for how much revenue these agencies collect and what sources they collect from.”

Under this legislation, lawmakers would also have the option of keeping this revenue in the general fund for the purpose of deficit reduction. In fiscal year 2015 alone, agencies collected $516 billion through a wide array of user fees.

The Agency Accountability Act is a win for lawmakers who want to reclaim their rightful power of the purse and for those who care about fiscal sustainability and the negative economic effects of our growing national debt. With nearly two-thirds of the annual federal budget already consisting of “auto-pilot” mandatory spending, Congress should use this opportunity to pass the Agency Accountability Act and take back the power of the purse.

Heritage Action supports H.R. 850 / S. 299 and will include CO-SPONSORSHIP of this legislation in our scorecard.