Federal Relations

September 14, 2009

Update from Washington, DC

This week, lawmakers will attempt to clear the decks of routine legislative business on the floors of each chamber so that they can continue to give their full attention to how to move major aspects of Democrats’ signature priorities: healthcare reform and climate change legislation.

The House will take up a bill to overhaul the federal student loan system, which has become a top priority for President Obama.  The bill would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program and replace it with the Direct Lending Program administered by the US Department of Education.  It is estimated that this bill could save up to $87 billion, with some of those savings being used to increase Pell Grants and reduce the federal deficit. 

The House will also consider legislation that will provide for an Energy Department program for the research, development, demonstration and commercial application of vehicle technologies.

The Senate plans to finish work on the FY10 Transportation-HUD spending bill early this week, with the first votes on amendments to that measure tonight and stretching into Tuesday.  It is clear that they won’t meet the September 30th deadline so a short-term continuing resolution is all but assured.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to release its long-awaited health care overhaul legislation in advance of a markup. The committee needs to make final decisions on prohibiting federal funds for abortions, changes to the medical malpractice system, and expanding Medicaid.  Democratic leaders have a Tuesday deadline to come up with a bipartisan proposal before Democrats decide to go it alone on a measure, an option that could involve budget reconciliation procedures.

Budget reconciliation is a senate procedure that would allow the majority party to limit debate and approve a measure with only 51 votes as opposed to the usual 60.  Reconciliation, enacted in 1974 to reduce the budget deficit through better legislative discipline, is designed to align, or reconcile, existing spending laws with the annual budget resolution adopted by the House and Senate.  Unlike most other measures, reconciliation bills are immune to a filibuster (which requires 60 votes to overcome). In years past, both parties have used the procedure to advance policy changes that have had little or nothing to do with deficit reduction.

The use of reconciliation does come with some risks to the majority party.  The rule allows any senator to raise a point of order to strike out parts of a reconciliation measure that are found not to be budget issues.  To a large degree, it is the Senate parliamentarian — an appointee of the majority leader — who makes the call on what does and does not qualify for a spot in a reconciliation bill.  In the case of health reform, the Senate Democrats run the risk of having some portions of their health bill removed from consideration.

It will also be a busy work for the Office of Federal Relations.  Several members of the UW community are in DC this week for a variety of national meetings.  President Emmert will attend the Coalition of Universities for Global Health and participate in a panel discussion with his colleagues from other universities.  He will also visit with agency officials and Members of Congress.  Other faculty members will also be on the Hill this week advocating for global health initiatives and geological/seismic policy priorities.  We are also looking forward to seeing other members of the UW community in DC in the next few weeks.

Christy Gullion, Director