7 Bills That Could Actually Pass

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House Transportation and Infrastructure Full Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., left, talks to the committee's ranking Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2013, during the committee's markup to consider legislation on the Keystone XL pipeline project and other measures.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Aug. 12, 2013, 1:08 p.m.

The pro­nounce­ments that this Con­gress is one of the least pro­duct­ive in his­tory have reached a cres­cendo. Of the 25 bills that have been signed in­to law so far, even the most rudi­ment­ary took a tor­tured route to pas­sage.

But just as there are signs that parties and cham­bers can work to­geth­er to get things done — wit­ness the bill to lower stu­dent-loan rates that was signed last week — there are bills that stand a sol­id chance of nav­ig­at­ing the le­gis­lat­ive maze to pas­sage, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with law­makers and staff.

Like much of the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment, many of these bills are not sexy, in­clud­ing meas­ures that tackle wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pound­ing, and postal re­forms. But they con­tain sol­id le­gis­lat­ive work that af­fects the every­day lives of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans.

Of course, no one has a crys­tal ball, and any­thing can hap­pen when Con­gress re­turns from its break to ad­dress fisc­al is­sues and the debt ceil­ing. But here are sev­en meas­ures that could find suc­cess after the Au­gust break:

Wa­ter Re­sources

The House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee is set to mark up the Wa­ter Re­sources Re­form and De­vel­op­ment Act in Septem­ber, ready­ing it for an Oc­to­ber floor vote. Sig­ni­fic­antly, it has sup­port from com­mit­tee Demo­crats, which means there should be no floor-time sur­prises of the sort that met the farm bill and cer­tain spend­ing meas­ures earli­er this year.

The Sen­ate has passed its own ver­sion, also on a bi­par­tis­an vote. The only ques­tions start to arise if the meas­ure makes it to a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee.

Last year, the Sen­ate was able to force most of its bi­par­tis­an high­way bill through the House be­cause the House proved un­able to pass its own ver­sion. For this bill, however, House ne­go­ti­at­ors are in a much stronger po­s­i­tion to bar­gain. They will in­sist that man­dates for the Army Corps of En­gin­eers — such as auto­mat­ic­ally deau­thor­iz­ing pro­jects that have been delayed too long — re­main in the fi­nal product.

Sen­ten­cing Laws

Sen­ten­cing policies are about to spring back onto the agenda, after At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er said Monday that the Justice De­part­ment may no longer pur­sue man­dat­ory min­im­um sen­tences for some less­er drug crimes.

And the is­sue could have a le­gis­lat­ive fu­ture, too. Bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion to re­form the coun­try’s stat­utory min­im­um-sen­ten­cing laws, to com­bat skyrock­et­ing pris­on pop­u­la­tions, and to curb what some say is money wasted on lengthy pris­on terms for non­vi­ol­ent crimes, in­clud­ing many drug of­fenses, is un­der con­struc­tion.

Bills such as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, for ex­ample, would give judges more dis­cre­tion in set­ting sen­tences. The meas­ure was in­tro­duced by Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. A com­pan­ion meas­ure has been in­tro­duced with bi­par­tis­an spon­sors in the House.

A sep­ar­ate meas­ure to mod­ern­ize fed­er­al sen­ten­cing for non­vi­ol­ent of­fenses, The Smarter Sen­ten­cing Act, has been in­tro­duced by Sen­ate As­sist­ant Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion

The na­tion­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill is a con­tender to be­come law. The House passed its ver­sion of the bill in early Ju­ly, 315-108, and the Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to take up its ver­sion be­fore the end of the ses­sion, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide.

The House’s bill au­thor­izes Pentagon ap­pro­pri­ations for a range of pro­grams, in­clud­ing pro­cure­ment, re­search and de­vel­op­ment, and op­er­a­tions and main­ten­ance, as well as NATO and base clos­ures. It also sets re­quire­ments for per­son­nel and train­ing, mil­it­ary pay, and health care. The Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee re­por­ted its bill to the Sen­ate in June.

The Sen­ate ver­sion of the le­gis­la­tion es­tab­lishes an un­der­sec­ret­ary of De­fense for man­age­ment and also au­thor­izes ap­pro­pri­ations to the En­ergy De­part­ment for the de­part­ment’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity pro­grams.

Phar­ma­ceut­ic­al Com­pound­ing

A phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pound­ing bill to more clearly define the roles of the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion and state boards of phar­macy in over­see­ing phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pound­ing fa­cil­it­ies, which cus­tom mix drugs, could be­come law by year’s end.

A bi­par­tis­an Sen­ate bill passed out of com­mit­tee in May, and sup­port­ers hoped for, but did not get, a vote be­fore the Au­gust re­cess. Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, and rank­ing mem­ber Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn., in­tro­duced an up­dated ver­sion of the le­gis­la­tion in Ju­ly.

The House ver­sion of the le­gis­la­tion hasn’t got­ten out of com­mit­tee yet, and a dis­cus­sion draft in­tro­duced by Rep. Mor­gan Grif­fith, R-Va., dif­fers from the Sen­ate ver­sion in how it cat­egor­izes com­pound­ing fa­cil­it­ies for reg­u­la­tion. The House has passed a sep­ar­ate bill to more closely track drugs through the na­tion’s sup­ply chain, something that would be done in the Sen­ate Health and Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee’s com­pound­ing bill.

Hope re­mains that le­gis­la­tion could be en­acted this year, in part be­cause the mo­mentum to pass new reg­u­la­tions has been steady since last fall’s deadly out­break of fungal men­ingit­is from tain­ted ster­oid in­jec­tions pro­duced by a com­pound­ing cen­ter in Mas­sachu­setts. Hun­dreds be­came sick from the in­jec­tions and more than 60 died, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

On Monday, Al­ex­an­der poin­ted to an­oth­er reas­on Con­gress should pass a com­pound­ing bill: FDA is­sued a vol­un­tary re­call this week­end of com­poun­ded drugs from a Texas-based com­pany cit­ing con­cerns that they may have been re­spons­ible for an out­break of bac­teri­al blood­stream in­fec­tions.

Some As­pects of Postal Re­form

Pre­vi­ous con­gres­sion­al ef­forts to ad­dress the bleed­ing fin­ances of the U.S. Postal Ser­vice have sputtered, thanks to a lack of Sen­ate-House agree­ment over how to ap­proach the prob­lem. The Sen­ate passed a bill last ses­sion, but the House did not vote on that bill, nor did it pass its own ver­sion.

Mean­while, the Postal Ser­vice has con­tin­ued to hem­or­rhage money, al­beit at a slower pace than be­fore, ac­cord­ing to a quarterly re­port on its fin­ances re­leased Monday.

Now, both cham­bers are back at it. House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell Issa’s new bill was ap­proved by his com­mit­tee along party lines. It in­cludes ef­forts to soften pre­vi­ous pro­pos­als to close rur­al post of­fices, which could provide House lead­er­ship with the votes they need to bring the bill to the floor.

A bi­par­tis­an Sen­ate bill in­tro­duced last week by House Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Carp­er, D-Del., and the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mem­ber, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., con­tains some sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ences. For in­stance, the Sen­ate Demo­crats still want a more delayed trans­ition to five-day mail de­liv­ery (with Sat­urday de­liv­ery lim­ited to pack­ages), as op­posed to the House bill, which im­me­di­ately ends Sat­urday ser­vice. But there is also agree­ment in both bills on cer­tain meas­ures, such as au­thor­iz­ing the Postal Ser­vice to of­fer new ser­vices, such as is­su­ing fish­ing or hunt­ing li­censes.

Sen­ate Demo­crats will have a num­ber of prob­lems with the bill, in­clud­ing pos­sibly “de­liv­ery-point mod­ern­iz­a­tion” that could im­pact “to-the-door” de­liv­ery. And they may have a prob­lem with Issa’s lim­its on col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing. But there is op­tim­ism that both chair­men are genu­inely com­mit­ted to work­ing to­ward some agree­ment, even if it is not as com­pre­hens­ive as some may like.

Med­ic­al Devices Le­gis­la­tion

Le­gis­la­tion to re­peal a 2.3 per­cent ex­cise tax on med­ic­al devices en­acted to help pay for Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law stands a chance of pas­sage. In the House, the bill has 259 co­spon­sors. In the Sen­ate, a 79-20 sym­bol­ic, non­bind­ing vote was taken in March to re­peal the tax as part of its 2014 budget res­ol­u­tion.

The hol­dup seems eas­ily fixed. The spon­sor of the House meas­ure, Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., has said he’s been press­ing House lead­ers to take ac­tion, but that they have ex­pressed con­cern about send­ing a rev­en­ue bill to the Sen­ate.

The Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires rev­en­ue meas­ures to ori­gin­ate in the House, but once the Sen­ate re­ceives those bills, they can be used as a vehicle for the Sen­ate’s own tax pri­or­it­ies. Some House Re­pub­lic­ans point to the po­ten­tial use of these bills by Sen­ate Demo­crats to ad­vance tax hikes and oth­er meas­ures that Re­pub­lic­ans op­pose. So, their strategy on this bill — and oth­er rev­en­ue bills — has been that the House will have to first se­cure a com­mit­ment from Sen­ate Demo­crats that they will ad­dress the med­ic­al-device tax spe­cific­ally, and not oth­er pri­or­it­ies.

But the pres­sure is build­ing. Last week, 35 of the 37 House GOP fresh­men wrote a let­ter to their lead­er­ship ask­ing for a vote. Their let­ter noted that more than 8,000 med­ic­al-device man­u­fac­tur­ers in the United States em­ploy more than 420,000 people. The tax, en­acted in 2010 and which took ef­fect in Janu­ary 2013, “will raise nearly $30 bil­lion from Amer­ica’s med­ic­al-device man­u­fac­tur­ers, put­ting up to 43,000 high-pay­ing U.S. jobs at risk,” the let­ter said.

For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court

Le­gis­la­tion to re­form the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, which over­sees re­quests for sur­veil­lance war­rants, could get a boost after the re­cent rev­el­a­tions that it au­thor­ized broad re­cord-col­lec­tion and sur­veil­lance of Amer­ic­ans.

Re­form ef­forts have sputtered in the past. But rev­el­a­tions in June about the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s activ­it­ies, brought to light by Ed­ward Snowden, a former NSA con­tract­or, have spawned some un­usu­al in­ter­party co­ali­tions of con­cerned law­makers.

Obama too has ad­dressed the is­sue, call­ing as late as Fri­day for re­forms to the court that would in­tro­duce an “in­de­pend­ent voice” that would “make sure the gov­ern­ment’s po­s­i­tion is chal­lenged by an ad­versary.” He said he would work with Con­gress to push the re­forms through.

Sens. Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., have an­nounced two new bills that would change the FISA court. One would cre­ate a spe­cial ad­voc­ate with the power to ar­gue in the FISA courts on be­half of the right to pri­vacy and oth­er in­di­vidu­al rights. The second bill would re­form how judges are ap­poin­ted to the FISA courts, to en­sure that the court is geo­graph­ic­ally and ideo­lo­gic­ally di­verse.

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