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Congress, Capital Thinking Prepare for Recess; Lawmakers to Consider Budget Resolution

Posted in General Legislative

Congress, Capital Thinking Prepare for Recess

At the conclusion of this week, both the House and Senate will adjourn for a two-week recess. During this time, there will not be regularly scheduled updates of the Capital Thinking Blog. Both Congress and Capital Thinking will return on Monday, April 13.

Senate Legislative Activity

On Monday, March 23, the Senate will convene at 12:00pm. Following any Leaders remarks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is expected to move to proceed to consider the FY 2016 Budget Resolution, with at least one roll call vote on an amendment expected at 5:30pm.

House Legislative Activity

On Monday, March 23, the House will meet at 12:00pm for morning hour and at 2:00pm for legislative business, with votes postponed until 6:30pm.  The following legislation will be considered under suspension of the rules:

  1. H.R. 360 – Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2015, as amended;
  2. H.R. 233 – Tenant Income Verification Relief Act of 2015;
  3. H.R. 216 – Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Planning Reform Act of 2015, as amended;
  4. H. Res. 53 – Condemning the cowardly attack on innocent men, women, and children in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga, as amended; and
  5. H. Res. ___ – Calling on the President to provide Ukraine with military assistance to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On Tuesday, March 24, the House will meet at 10:00am for morning hour and at 12:00pm for legislative business. On Wednesday, March 25, the House will meet at 10:00am for legislative business and recess immediately. The House will reconvene at approximately 10:45am for a Joint Meeting of Congress to receive His Excellency Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. On Thursday, March 26, the House will meet at 9:00am for legislative business, with last votes expected by 3:00pm.

The House will consider H.R.H.R. 1092, to designate the Federal building located at 2030 Southwest 145th Avenue in Miramar, Florida, as the “Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove Federal Bureau of Investigation Miami Field Office,” as amended.

Additionally, subject to a rule, the House will consider H. Con. Res. __, establishing the budget for the United States Government for fiscal year 2016 and setting forth appropriate budgetary levels for fiscal years 2017 through 2025. Separately, the House will consider legislation related to the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR).

On Friday, March 27, no votes are expected in the House.

House and Senate Budget Resolutions Heading to the Floor for Debate

Posted in Budget and Appropriations

Legislative Activity

House and Senate Budget Resolutions Heading to the Floor for Debate

The House and Senate Budget Committees have reported their respective budget resolutions out of committee, and the House and Senate will bring those resolutions to the floor this week. Both committees have seen defense hawks and fiscal conservatives at odds over the level of defense spending included in the budget. Several defense hawks have said they would not vote for a budget resolution that did not increase defense spending, while fiscal conservatives do not want to vote for any budget that increases the deficit.

The House Budget Committee passed their budget resolution on a party-line vote, but fiscal conservatives blocked House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) desired $20 billion in additional defense spending designed to garner support from defense hawks. House Republican leadership plans to add the increased defense spending back into the bill this week through the Rules Committee, before the resolution comes to the House floor. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) is confident he will be able to get the increased funding into the budget resolution, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) will make a “full-court press” to drum up support for the additional funding.

The Senate Budget Committee passed their budget resolution on a party-line vote as well, and included an additional $38 billion in defense spending that will go into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which is not subject to the strict spending caps. The additional funding will be paid for by decreasing defense spending between 2022 and 2025. The increased defense spending is intended to garner support from defense hawks, such as John McCain (R-AZ), who have indicated they will support the resolution if it includes the increase to the OCO account. Senate Democrats plan to offer several amendments when the resolution is on the floor this week, which are intended to draw a contrast with Republicans on issues such as paid sick leave, free community college, and minimum wage increases.

This Week’s Hearings:

  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Appropriations Committee Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled “American Indian and Alaska Native Public and Outside Witness Hearing.”
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Appropriations Committee State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee will hold a Public and Outside Witness hearing.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Appropriations Committee Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled “American Indian and Alaska Native Public and Outside Witness Hearing.”
  • Thursday, March 26: The House Appropriations Committee Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing on federal investments in neuroscience and neurotechnology.
  • Thursday, March 26: The Senate Appropriations Committee State, Foreign Operations, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled “Diplomacy, Development, and National Security.”

Senate Appropriations Committee FY 2016 Budget Hearings

  • Tuesday, March 24: The Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Judiciary.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Defense Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Defense Health Program.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Energy and Water Development Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Department of Energy.
  • Thursday, March 26: The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Department of Labor.
  • Thursday, March 26: The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for Select Defense Agencies.

House Appropriations Committee FY 2016 Budget Hearings

  • Monday, March 23: The Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the United States Supreme Court.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Department of Agriculture Research Agencies.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Energy and Water Development Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Programs.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Defense Subcommittee will hold a closed hearing on the Budget Request for the Missile Defense Agency.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Federal Communications Commission.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Homeland Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the United States Coast Guard.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the National Labor Relations Board.
  • Tuesday, March 24: The State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for Central America Foreign Aid.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Federal Railroad Administration, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Energy and Water Development Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the National Nuclear Security Administration, Nuclear Nonproliferation, and Naval Reactors.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Judiciary.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Defense Subcommittee will hold a closed hearing on the Budget Request for the Intelligence Community Budget and Global Threat.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
  • Thursday, March 26: The Defense Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the United States Army.
  • Thursday, March 26: The Homeland Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Budget Request for the Department of Homeland Security.

Congress to Move Forward on Data Security and Information Sharing Bills

Posted in Cybersecurity

Legislative Activity

Information Sharing Bills Continue to Multiply

Last week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the bill text of S. 754 – the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) – which previously passed out of the committee by a 14-1 vote. In response to the bill’s release, a number of privacy advocates expressed their concerns with the privacy provisions included in CISA. Most of their comments centered on their concern that the bill would expand the government’s authority to use data that is shared through the information sharing process and that the bill does not do enough to require companies to remove personal data prior to sharing it with the government. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) continue to emphasize the intended purpose of the bill and the compromises that were already made in the Committee’s mark-up to include stronger privacy provisions. They intend to bring the bill to the Senate floor in April.

In addition to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s efforts on cybersecurity, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is also working to draft its cybersecurity information sharing legislation, which it plans to introduce in the coming weeks. The bill is likely to be similar to CISA. At the same time, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) has stated that he plans to officially introduce cybersecurity information sharing legislation this week and move the bill to the House floor by April. A draft of the legislation began circulating among stakeholders last week. Chairman McCaul’s bill will make the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the main agency in charge of facilitating cyber threat information sharing between the federal government and the private sector. Additionally, his bill would also contain strong legal liability protections for companies that share information with the government. A mark-up of the bill has not been scheduled to date but could occur as early as this week.

Data Breach Bill to be Marked up this Week

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade will mark up the discussion draft of its data security bill – the Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015. The subcommittee will meet on Tuesday afternoon to give opening statements on the bill and will reconvene on Wednesday morning to vote on the draft bill. Reps. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) unveiled the bill last week which would implement a 30 day requirement for companies that experience a data breach to notify consumers if their personal information may have been compromised. Several House Democrats have called the bill a “non-starter” but it is expected that this bill will successfully make it out of the subcommittee, despite the fact that a timeline for further consideration of the bill has not been announced.

This Week’s Hearings

  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade will meet to give opening statements on the Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade will mark up the Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015.

Regulatory Activity

DHS Will Release Information Sharing Grant Notice

DHS announced last week that it will issue a federal funding opportunity notice in late spring in order to launch the process of selecting a nongovernmental organization that will lead the efforts to develop new industry standards for information sharing. This grant notice stems from the concepts proposed in the President’s Executive Order last month, which would create a network of Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations (ISAO) to assist in sharing cyber threat data among public and private sector partners. White House Cybersecurity Coordinator emphasized the need for ISAO standards, noting that the industry’s adoption of these standards should be driven by “market forces as opposed to a government mandate.”

House Timeline for NDAA Announced Last Week

Posted in Defense

Legislative Activity

National Defense Authorization Act

Last Monday, House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) provided a timeline for House action on the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). He said that the HASC subcommittees would mark up their portions of the annual policy measure the week of 20 April. The full committee will take up the bill on 29 April with a goal of getting it to the House floor the week of 13 May.

Unlike its House counterpart, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has traditionally considered the NDAA in closed sessions. However, SASC Chairman John McCain indicated the same day that he would defer to a majority of Members of the committee on whether to make the proceedings public.

Student Data Privacy Legislation to be Introduced This Week

Posted in Education

Legislative Activity

Student Data Privacy Legislation to be Introduced This Week

House Education and the Workforce Committee members Reps. Luke Messer (R-IN) and Jared Polis (D-CO) will introduce student data privacy legislation on Monday. The bill is largely based on the Student Privacy Pledge, formulated by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software and Information Industry Association, which over 120 education technology companies have signed to date. The bill will likely be referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over privacy issues and the Federal Trade Commission that will be charged with enforcing the legislation if passed. Additionally, the House Education and the Workforce Committee is planning to release a bill later this year that would update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

House and Senate Still Optimistic on ESEA Reauthorization

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) continue to negotiate behind the scenes to reach a bipartisan compromise on an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill. Very few details of the negotiations have been made public, but the Senate HELP Committee is planning to mark up an ESEA bill during the week of April 13. As such, we expect a bill to be released soon and will likely include a number of changes to the discussion draft that Chairman Alexander released earlier this year.

The House continues to wait for the leadership to give additional floor time to continue the consideration of the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), which is currently on hold. Meanwhile, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and his staff continue to re-educate members about the bill’s provisions. They are optimistic that, once scheduled for the floor, H.R. 5 will move forward.

HEA Reauthorization Coming this Summer

Senate HELP Committee staff are gearing up for the introduction of a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization sometime this summer before the August recess.  Prior to the introduction of legislation, the Committee plans to release three white papers on several higher education issues in an effort to solicit feedback from stakeholders. These white papers will focus on:

  • Consumer protection and data privacy;
  • Accreditation issues/processes; and
  • The concept of universities having “skin in the game” when it comes to student loans.

FY 2016 Budget Resolutions Contain Education Proposals

The House and Senate unveiled and marked up their individual FY 2016 Budget Resolutions this week. There are several provisions included which have raised concerns among the higher education community, including:

  • Pell Grants: The House resolution would freeze the maximum Pell Grant at its FY 2015 level for the next 10 years and would eliminate all mandatory funding for Pell grants, cutting Pell funding by $89.3 billion. This cut could lead to a 15% cut to the maximum grant award. The Senate resolution also would cut approximately $90 billion over 10 years from the program.
  • Student Loans: The House resolution recommends the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) move to fair-value accounting when scoring student loan programs, making them seem more costly to the federal government. It also would eliminate (1) in-school interest subsidies for undergraduate need-based Stafford loans, (2) public sector loan forgiveness, and (3) recent expansions of Income-based repayments for student loans. The Senate resolution requires an additional fair-value accounting estimate from CBO (when practical) on the cost of changes that would affect the amount or terms of new federal loans or modifications to existing federal loans. This accounting mechanism would lead to loans adding to the federal deficit over time in CBO estimates, rather than current estimates that find the loan programs earn money.
  • Workforce Development Programs: The House resolution proposes further consolidation of workforce development (federal education and training) programs beyond what was included in the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). It also calls for improved coordination and accountability of those programs.

The House and Senate will consider their FY 2016 Budget Resolution on the floor this week. It is expected that Democrats in the Senate will offer amendments related to the federal minimum wage, student loan rates, and possibly other financial aid issues during the Senate’s floor debate.

This Week’s Hearings

  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity will mark up several pieces of legislation including the following bills related to veterans’ education issues: Reducing Barriers for Veterans Education Act (HR 456); GI Bill Processing Improvement Act (HR 475); GI Bill Education Quality Enhancement Act (HR 476); and Veterans Education Survey Act (HR 643).

Executive Branch Activity

College Ratings System will be Finalized by August

Last week, Deputy Under Secretary of Education Jamienne Studley revealed that the first full version of the federal college ratings system will be out by August 2015. The Department of Education’s previous announcement indicated the ratings would be out before the start of the 2015-16 school year. Studley spoke on the ratings system during her appearance on a panel at the National Lieutenant Governors Association’s 2015 federal-state relations meeting. While she recognized the challenge in creating the ratings system, she noted the process has already created positive dialogue and action at some institutions.

New Fracking Rule Released; Congress to Discuss National Forests, Federal Lands, U.S. Minerals and Renewable Energy; Potential for State Permitting Under Clean Water Act; Funding for Wind Turbine Blades from Department of Energy

Posted in Environment and Natural Resources

Regulatory Activity

New Hydraulic Fracturing Rule Released

The U.S. Department of Interior has released its final agency rule that would regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas development on federal and tribal lands. The final rule could have a significant impact on the oil and gas industry given the scope of oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands. As BLM notes, “Currently, nearly 36 million acres off Federal land are under lease for potential oil and gas development in 33 states. As of June 30, 2014, there were approximately 47,000 active oil and gas leases on public lands, and approximately 95,000 oil and gas wells.” Legislation has already been introduced in the Senate aimed at blocking implementation of the final rule. Shortly after the final rule was released, industry filed a lawsuit to block its implementation. We anticipate hearings on Capitol Hill later this year to explore the potential impact of the rule on future oil and gas development on federal and tribal lands.

New Potential for State Permitting Under Clean Water Act

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking nominations of candidates for its National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology to provide advice as to how states may assume permitting responsibility for waters under approved Clean Water Act dredge and fill permit programs. Nominations are due May 15.

Funding for Wind Turbine Blades

The Department of Energy will provide $1.8 million in funding for research and development to improve “manufacturing, transportation, and assembly of wind turbine blades longer than 60 meters.” Concept papers are due April 17. Click here to apply.

Legislative Activity

Waters of the U.S.

On Tuesday, March 24, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee will hold a full committee hearing to discuss potential impacts of EPA’s Waters of the U.S. proposed rule.

National Forests and Federal Lands

On Tuesday, March 24, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a full committee hearing titled “Improving Forest Health & Socioeconomic Opportunities on the Nation’s Forest System.” Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will testify. Also on Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Federal Lands, will hold a hearing to examine the FY 2016 proposed “Spending Priorities and Missions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.”

U.S. Mineral Resources

On Tuesday, March 24 the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, will hold an oversight hearing to review the “Spending Priorities and Mission of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the President’s FY 2016 Budget Proposal.” The Subcommittee will also discuss U.S. minerals on Thursday, March 26, while reviewing the FY 16 proposed spending priorities of the U.S. Forest Service’s Energy and Minerals Program as it relates to “job creation, domestic energy production and deficit reduction.”

USGS Water Concerns

On Tuesday, March 24, the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans, will hold an oversight hearing proposed USGS water priorities for Fiscal Year 2016.”

Renewable Energy

On Tuesday, March 24, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Energy, will hold an oversight hearing concerning the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. David Danielson, Assistant Secretary, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will testify.

Lawmakers to Consider Oversight of Several Agencies; SEC, CFTC to Hold Meetings

Posted in Financial Services

Legislative Activity

Lawmakers to Consider Oversight of Several Agencies

This week, both the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee are slated to hold several hearings focused on oversight efforts of several agencies.  The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing to review accountability of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) as relates to the agency’s designation of nonbank entities as systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing with Chair Mary Jo White to review the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) agenda, operations, and FY 2016 budget request, as well as a hearing to discuss the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) role in “Operation Choke Point.” Additionally, the Committee will hold a markup this week of various bills, including provisions to reform the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) through the establishment of the Small Business Advisory Board.  The House Agriculture Committee will hold two hearings on the Commodity Futures Tradition Commission (CFTC).

This Week’s Hearings:

  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing titled “Examining the SEC’s Agenda, Operations, and FY 2016 Budget Request.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold a hearing titled “The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s Role in Operation Choke Point.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Senate Banking Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance, and Investment will hold a hearing titled “Capital Formation and Reducing Small Burdens.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, & Credit will hold a hearing on reauthorization of the CFTC focused on end-user views.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Financial Services Committee will hold a markup of various tax bills.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing titled “FSOC Accountability: Nonbank Designations.”
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, & Credit will hold a hearing on reauthorization of the CFTC focused on market participant views.

Regulatory Activity

SEC to Hold Open Meeting on FINRA Registration, JOBS Act Implementation

As foreshadowed by SEC Chair Mary Jo White’s June 2014 speech on stock market reforms, this week, the SEC will hold an open meeting to vote on proposed changes to Rule 15b9-1, which allows some firms to avoid registration with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The Commission will also consider whether to adopt rules and forms related to the offer and sale of securities pursuant to Section 3(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 to implement Section 401 of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act).

CFTC to Hold Inaugural Meeting of Market Risk Advisory Council

The CFTC will hold the inaugural meeting of its Market Risk Advisory Council (MRAC), which is sponsored by Commissioner Sharon Y. Bowen. The MRAC will discuss issues related to current risk management techniques employed by Derivatives Clearing Organizations (DCOs) to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to address the potential default of a significant clearing member, as well as the evolving structure of the derivatives markets, particularly with respect to Swap Execution Facilities (SEFs).

House Doc Fix Negotiations Continue; HHS Releases Health IT Proposed Rules

Posted in Health Care

Legislative Activity

Lawmakers Continue Negotiations on Doc Fix Package, Working Framework Announced

With the current patch expiring on March 31, lawmakers continued over the weekend to negotiate a legislative package to permanently repeal Medicare’s automatic payment cut to physicians. H.R. 1470 is very similar to the bipartisan legislation that key committees in both chambers approved last year. It provides an annual pay increase of 0.5 percent to physicians through 2019 and establishes an incentive payment program, titled “Merit-Based Incentive Payment System” (MIPS), to assess eligible professionals in quality, resource use, electronic health record (EHR) Meaningful Use (MU), and clinical practice improvement activities. It consolidates three current incentive programs – the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), the Value-Based Modifier, and MU of EHRs. The legislation also provides financial incentives for professionals to become involved in alternative payment models.

Other provisions of H.R. 1470 address care management for individuals with chronic care needs, transparency of utilization and payment data for physicians and professionals, expansion of claims data availability, automatic renewal for professionals who opt-out of Medicare, and the reporting of such professional characteristics. The bill requires EHRs to be interoperable by 2018 and prohibits the purposeful blocking of information sharing with other EHR vendor products. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is required to issue a report providing recommendations on a permanent physician-hospital gainsharing program, as well as a report to examine the feasibility of establishing mechanisms to assist providers in comparing and selecting EHR technology products. The Government Accountability Office is to report on aspects of telehealth and remote patient monitoring services.

The working summary of the SGR package released by the House committee leaders includes fully funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through September 30, 2017. It extends all of the extenders in the current patch, in addition to funding for Community Health Centers, through 2017. The framework would permanently extend the Qualifying Individual Program and the Transitional Medical Assistance program, and the Tennessee Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Allotment would be extended through 2015. The legislation also includes two Medicare bills: H.R. 284, the Medicare DMEPOs Competitive Bidding Improvement Act and H.R. 1021, the Protecting Integrity to Medicare Act.

The policies that reduce the legislation’s cost that are provided in the working framework include: income-related Medicare Part B and D premium adjustments, Medigap reforms, an increase of levy authority on payments to Medicare providers with delinquent tax debt, an incremental phase-in of the 3.2 percentage point adjustment to hospital’s base payment rate in FY 2018, a delay of Medicaid DSH changes until FY 2018 and extension of the policy through 2025, and a 1 percent market basket update for post-acute care providers.

Negotiations are steadily making progress, and the House could consider the legislation as early as this week. Notably, Democrats on the Senate Committee on Finance have expressed concerns about the current package, including the two-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) (they would like a four-year extension), offsets that would increase costs to beneficiaries, and the impact of health centers language on women’s health services. On the other side of the aisle, some conservative lawmakers remain concerned about the cost of the total proposed package and the potential approach that would only provide for partial offsets.

This Week’s Hearings:

  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight will hold a hearing titled “The Use of Data to Stop Medicare Fraud.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Committee on Agriculture will hold a hearing titled “Examination of the Costs and Impacts of Mandatory Biotechnology Laws.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing titled “Examining the 340B Drug Pricing Program.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) will hold a hearing titled “Continuing America’s Leadership: Advancing Research and Development for Patients.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a hearing titled “The Veterans Choice Act – Exploring the Distance Criteria.”
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies will hold a hearing titled “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Budget.”
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a hearing titled “Examining Access and Quality of Care and Services for Women Veterans.”
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense will hold a hearing to review the FY 2016 funding request and budget justification for the Defense Health Program.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Senate Committee on Aging will hold a hearing titled “The Fight Against Alzheimer’s Disease: Are We on Track to a Treatment by 2025?”
  • Thursday, March 26: The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold a hearing titled “Examining the Growing Problems of Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse: State and Local Perspectives.”
  • Thursday, March 26: The House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies will hold a hearing titled “Federal Investments in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology Oversight.”
  • Thursday, March 26: The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a hearing titled “VA Opioid Prescription Policy, Practice, and Procedures.”

Regulatory Activity

Final Rule Clarifies Eligibility for Wraparound Benefits

On Wednesday, March 18, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Employee Benefits Security Administration, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a final rule that amends the regulations regarding excepted benefits. Excepted benefits include those benefits that are more limited or tangential to medical care, such as limited scope vision or dental benefits, coverage for a specified disease or illness, or Medicare supplement policies.

This final regulation amends the definition of “limited excepted benefits” in the group market to provide employers with two options for offering limited wraparound coverage. Under the first option, an employer could offer limited wraparound benefits to part-time and retired employees, as well as their dependents, who are enrolled in eligible individual health insurance. This regulation clarifies that the Basic Health Program, a state-based coverage program for low-income residents who are otherwise ineligible for marketplace coverage, qualifies as eligible individual health insurance. Alternatively, under the second option, an employer could offer wraparound coverage for employees enrolled individually in Multi-State Plans, provided that the wraparound coverage meets the requirements outlined in the regulation and is approved by the Office of Personnel Management.

Under the final rule, wraparound coverage could first be offered as excepted benefits between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2018. The wraparound coverage pilot program sunsets on the later of either three years after the wraparound coverage was first offered or upon expiration of the last collective bargaining agreement relating to the plan.

Stakeholders Push Back on MU Stage 3 Reporting Period

On Friday, March 20, CMS released a proposed rule which would specify the Stage 3 MU criteria for providers and hospitals to qualify for Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive payments and to avoid downward payment adjustments under the Medicare EHR Incentive Program. Stage 3 is expected to be the final stage of MU, and its requirements focus on the advanced use of certified EHR technology (CEHRT) in an effort to bolster information sharing and deliver high-quality, efficient, and coordinated care for patients.

Beginning in CY 2017, the proposed rule would change the EHR reporting period from 90 days to a full calendar year for all providers except for Medicaid providers in their first year of MU. Additionally, the proposed rule would support efforts to align the EHR Incentive Programs with other EHR quality reporting programs, including the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (IQR) and Physician Quality Reporting (PQRS) programs.

Hospitals and provider groups immediately criticized CMS for requiring year-long reporting periods in future years, without first keeping its promise to shorten the reporting period for 2015. In January, the agency had stated that it will change the 2015 reporting period to 90-days, but has yet to release its flexibility rules for 2015.

The comment period for the proposed rule ends on May 29, 2015.

ONC Proposes Changes to the Health IT Certification Program

On Friday, March 20, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) released a proposed rule relating to the Health IT Certification Program. The Health IT Certification Program was established by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act to oversee national health IT programs. This proposed rule identifies ways to boost interoperability and proposes modifications to make the Health IT Certification Program more “open and accessible” to different types of health IT besides EHRs.

ONC National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo stated that this proposal, which was released in tandem with CMS’s MU rule, will support Stage 3’s effort to build a coordinated, interoperable health IT system.

The comment period ends on May 29, 2015.

House Bill Would Tighten Requirements for Visa Waiver Program; Federal Judge Asked to Consider Sanctions in Ongoing Immigration Litigation

Posted in Homeland Security

Legislative Activity

House Bill Would Tighten Requirements for Visa Waiver Program

A proposed House bill seeks to strengthen requirements under the visa waiver program in place for nationals from certain countries. The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 (H.R. 158), originally introduced by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), aims to tighten requirements under the visa waiver program allowing citizens of 38 countries to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. Participating countries must meet certain other requirements, including intelligence–sharing, to remain eligible. Rep. Miller’s bill would expand the criteria by which a country may be removed from the program, including for not meeting these information-sharing requirements, and would increase the databases used to perform background checks on individuals entering the U.S. visa-free.

During this week’s House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security hearing, Rep. Miller said she hopes her bill will marked up in committee and considered by the full House of Representatives “shortly.”

This Week’s Hearings:

  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Homeland Security Committee will host a hearing titled “A Global Battleground: The Fight Against Islamist Extremism at Home and Abroad.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will host a hearing titled “Securing the Border: Assessing the Impact of Transnational Crime.”
  • Tuesday, March 24: The House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Homeland Security will host a hearing on proposed FY appropriations with Adm. Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • Wednesday, March 25: The House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Transportation Security will host a hearing titled “Risk-Based Security: Assessing the Path Forward for TSA Pre✓™.”
  • Wednesday, March 25: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will host a hearing titled “Securing the Border: Understanding and Addressing the Root Causes of Central American Migration to the United States.”
  • Thursday, March 26: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will host a hearing titled “Securing the Border: Defining the Current Population Living in the Shadows and Addressing Future Flows.”
  • Thursday, March 26: The House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Homeland Security will host a hearing on proposed FY appropriations with Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Executive Branch Activity

Federal Judge Asked to Consider Sanctions in Ongoing Immigration Litigation

This week, U.S. government and Texas attorneys squared off in ongoing litigation challenging the President’s proposed actions on immigration. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen originally issued an injunction blocking implementation of the executive actions at issue in February in a case brought by 26 states.

Federal attorneys originally told Judge Hanen that the President’s executive actions on immigration would not go into effect until February 18. In a later filing, the government disclosed that it had deferred deportation and granted work permits for 100,000 immigrants under 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program before Judge Hanen’s injunction – while the program is not new, the President’s November 2014 announcement expanded the number of people eligible to apply for deferrals under the program and extended the duration from two years to three years.

During a hearing in Texas this week, Judge Hanen chided the government for making its original statements, while federal attorneys apologized for any confusion about the reprieves and work permits. The government also claimed that the deferrals at issue were granted under the original, not expanded, guidelines – though Judge Hanen pointed out that they were granted for the new three-year duration. Judge Hanen is considering a request by the states for sanctions against the federal government as a result of the previous representations. The federal government has asked U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to lift Judge Hanen’s injunction blocking implementation of the program.

All Eyes on the Negotiations with Iran; US President to Host Afghan President

Posted in International

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

Late last Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko agreed that sanctions on Russia imposed in response to its actions in eastern Ukraine should be tied to full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Vice President Biden welcomed the Ukrainian Parliament’s adoption of measures in accordance with the Minsk agreements. The two also discussed an upcoming multinational training program for Ukraine’s National Guard forces, which the United States will support.

On Thursday, the media reported that up to 60 U.S. nationals have been added to a list of foreigners subject to entry bans and asset freezes in Russia. In response to being listed, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) said he could not be more proud of being sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin, and that he will never stop his efforts to support democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law in Russia.

The day before EU leaders met to discuss the situation in Ukraine, President Barack Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two leaders affirmed their position that full and prompt implementation of the three Minsk agreements must occur and Russia’s commitments must be met before any sanctions will be eased. President Obama and Chancellor Merkel also agreed on the continued importance of providing economic support for Ukraine as it implements necessary reforms. On Thursday, EU leaders agreed that they will not lift economic sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreement is fully implemented. In a sign of continuing tensions between Russia and the West, Lithuanian authorities reported that eight Russian fighter jets had been intercepted over international waters in the Baltic Sea by a NATO patrol last week.

Iran

Last Friday, President Obama spoke with French President François Hollande about the ongoing P5+1 Talks with Iran. Friday’s media reports indicate there is disagreement between the United States and France reportedly over the U.S. proposal to phase the lifting of sanctions. P5+1 negotiators are scheduled to meet this week to continue negotiations with Iran.

After negotiating last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said they would wait until mid-April before voting on legislation that would allow Congress to weigh-in on a nuclear deal with Iran. President Obama and the White House put significant pressure last week on Democrats to hold on supporting the legislation as the Administration seeks to finalize a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Senators Corker and Menendez said the SFRC would mark-up the bill as soon as Congress returns from the Easter recess on Tuesday, 14 April.

Syria/Iraq Crises

Last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement in response to reports that the Assad regime used chlorine gas as part of an attack earlier this week in the Syrian town of Sarmin. The Secretary said U.S. officials were deeply disturbed by the as-yet-unverified reports and he called a quick investigation into the allegations. The State Department declined to spell out any specific consequences should the attack be verified.

Yemen

Media reports emerged last week that the Pentagon has lost track of $500 million in military equipment, including small arms, ammunition, vehicles, and other supplies, that it donated to the country. U.S. officials confirmed that the supplies might have slipped into the hands of Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaida.

Trade Developments

Speculation remains high that a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill will be introduced after the 27 March – 12 April Easter congressional recess. Last week, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) reiterated it remains opposed to the passage of TPA. The AFL-CIO takes the position that free trade agreements have led to job loss and wage stagnation in the United States and do not necessarily seek to improve labor-related issues abroad. There are indications on Capital Hill that uncontroversial trade proposals – such as customs authorization, reauthorization of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, and the renewal of the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) – may be included in an “omnibus” trade package, anchored by TPA, which Congress might consider in May.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) indicated this week that the Democratic Caucus leadership is supporting House Ways & Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin’s (D-Michigan) demands that the Obama Administration involve lawmakers in discussing the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before Democrats would consider supporting a TPA bill. Minority Leader Pelosi’s remarks came after the House Democratic Caucus started the first of a series of meetings to discuss the TPP negotiations with Administration officials and outside experts. The Caucus meeting last week included labor leaders and an economist, with Congressman Levin sharing topics discussed included currency, investor-state dispute settlement, labor rights, and rules of origin. House Democrats also received briefings from Administration officials on currency, labor and investments. In a TPP-focused blog published on Friday, Congressman Levin defined his investor-state dispute settlements reform proposal for free trade agreements. Last week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said it would increase Congress’ access to the TPP text.

After Administration officials briefed the House Democrats on currency, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) – who opposes TPP – reported the Administration remains opposed to including a currency disciplines in a TPP deal. While there is bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress for currency manipulation to be addressed in TPP, the Administration advocates instead that this issue be handled through international bodies (such as the G-7, G-20, or the International Monetary Fund) and through bilateral discussions

On the third anniversary of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement (KORUS), Acting Deputy USTR Wendy Cutler acknowledged last Monday that full implementation of the agreement remains a challenge, particularly the financial data transfer, rules of origin and automotive provisions. Critics of TPP and TPA continue to cite KORUS as a negative example for future trade deals.

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman met last Friday in Brussels with European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. Both issued a joint statement on public services that affirms: “U.S. and EU trade agreements do not prevent governments, at any level, from providing or supporting services in areas such as water, education, health, and social services.” After meeting last Tuesday with President Obama, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Ireland supports the ongoing TTIP negotiations, adding that the next six months will be critical to those talks. Washington will host the ninth round of TTIP negotiations next month.

Sustainability

Last week, President Obama hosted Prince of Wales Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who were in the United States advocating for environmental protection.

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 24 March: Deadline for framework deal with Iran
  • 24 March: President Obama to host Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
  • 10-11 April: Summit of the Americas in Panama
  • 17 April: President Obama to host Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
  • 17-19 April: 2015 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the IMF in Washington
  • 7-8 June: G-7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany
  • 30 June: S. Export-Import Bank charter expires
  • 15 September: 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) opens in New York City
  • 24 September: Pope Francis to address Congress
  • 28 September: General debate of the UNGA begins