November 9, 2015

Legislative Focus: Senate NDAA Consideration, Military Construction-VA Appropriations

The Senate convened today at 3 p.m. to resume consideration of the FY 2016 Military Construction-VA appropriations bill, H.R. 2029. Tomorrow the Senate will vote on the revised National Defense Authorization Act, S. 1356, passed by the House last Thursday, 370-58. S. 1356 reflects $5 billion in changes to align the authorization bill with the recent budget agreement reached between Congress and the White House.

The House returns Monday, Nov. 16.

The Week in Review

Economy Adds 271,000 Jobs, Unemployment Shrinks to 5%
The U.S. Department of Labor announced the economy added 271,000 jobs in October, which jumped from last month’s 137,000. Hourly private sector earnings were up $0.09. The economy experienced job gains in health care, professional and business services, retail trade, food services and construction. Employment in mining, however, continued to contract. The number of long-term unemployed remained essentially unchanged at 2.1 million, and the number of involuntary part-time workers (which captures individuals working part-time but looking for a full-time job) dropped to 9.8 percent, the lowest since May 2008.

Administration Announces Executive Action on Accreditation
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced a series of executive actions to improve transparency and oversight of higher education accreditors. The department plans to require each accreditor to publish its standards for evaluating student outcomes, increase public access to federal data on accreditors, coordinate with states and other federal agencies to improve oversight and use student outcomes at all accreditors’ colleges as part of the department’s quality review process. The Education Department also called on Congress to repeal the statutory ban on federal achievement standards for accreditors.

CMS Advises States on Use of High-Cost Hepatitis C Drugs
In a letter to state Medicaid directors last week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said Medicaid programs may be violating federal law by denying access to high-cost hepatitis C medications. As examples, CMS notes that some states are restricting the use of such drugs to patients with liver disease or those who can prove they no longer abuse drugs and alcohol. CMS also expresses concern that access to hepatitis C drugs may be more limited in Medicaid managed care organizations compared with fee-for-service programs.

House Committee Advances State, Local Cybersecurity Bill
Last week, the House Committee on Homeland Security approved H.R. 3869, the State and Local Cyber Protection Act of 2015. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), directs the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) to voluntarily coordinate with state and local governments on securing their information systems. It also directs the NCCIC to assist state and local governments with assessing information system vulnerabilities and provide access to federal resources such as cybersecurity training and web-based tools. In addition, the bill requires the NCCIC to seek state and local feedback to ensure the effectiveness of its efforts.

Senate Blocks Waters of the U.S. Debate
Last week, the Senate blocked debate on S. 1140, the Federal Water Quality Protection Act. The bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revise the Waters of the U.S. rule after consulting with state and local regulatory officials. The rule has been the subject of numerous legal challenges since it was finalized in August and is currently under a court-ordered stay. Opponents argue it could vastly expand the number of waters subject to permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act. In a statement of administration policy, the White House indicated that the President was likely to veto the bill, citing the need to safeguard public health and ensure environmental protections.

CMS Releases Medicare Prescription Opioid Mapping Tool 
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released an interactive online mapping tool providing de-identified Medicare Part D opioid prescription claims by state, county and zip code. The tool is intended to help states, local health officials and providers address prescription drug abuse by better understanding opioid prescribing habits and patterns within a specific geographic area. The tool contains 2013 Medicare Part D prescription drug claims—prescriptions written and then submitted to be filled—and does not include beneficiary information.

House Passes Fusion Center Coordination Bills 
The House passed two bills under suspension of the rules to improve coordination between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state and local officials at fusion centers. Fusion centers are owned and operated by state and locals with support from federal agencies, and they allow state public safety officials to conduct analysis and facilitate information sharing to prevent crime and terrorism. H.R. 3598, the Fusion Center Enhancement Act, would require DHS to provide fusion centers with additional support, including additional DHS resources, operational expertise and analytic and reporting advice. The bill also would require DHS to support the sharing of terrorism information with state and local entities to the greatest extent possible. H.R. 3503, the DHS Support to Fusion Centers Act, would require DHS and state homeland security advisors to conduct a needs assessment of DHS personnel assigned to fusion centers. Both bills will be sent to the Senate for consideration.

Budget Deal Means Army Guard Readiness Reductions
The House Committee on Armed Services released a document outlining $5 billion in reductions to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) needed to comply with the new budget agreement made between congressional leadership and the White House. Defense appropriators and the committee reached the agreement last week. The cuts include a $192.6 million reduction in Army National Guard (ARNG) readiness funding and $2.7 million reduction in ARNG state partnership program funding. Overall Army readiness funding will decrease by $250 million.

Transportation Reauthorization Goes to Conference
Last week, the House voted, 363 – 64, to pass the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR). The vote ended three days of floor debate on 126 amendments. The current extension for surface transportation programs expires Nov. 20.