Outlook: Lawmakers Mull Mueller Protection Bill, IRS Reform

The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider legislation to limit President Trump’s ability to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller as members in the House zero in on the IRS.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
April 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

A bipartisan group of senators on the Judiciary Committee is urging lawmakers to take up its legislation attempting to add another layer of protection to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In press conferences last week, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated that Mueller “should be allowed” to do his job, and that they don’t think the president will fire Mueller.

“I have no reason to believe that that’s going to happen,” said Ryan. “I have assurances that’s not, because I’ve been talking to people in the White House about it.”

But some lawmakers privately expect the president to fire Mueller, pointing to Trump’s increasing public attacks on the investigation, which has reportedly collected findings on Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice. And Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Chris Coons of Delaware are preparing for the possibility of the dismissal, introducing a bill last week to ensure that the special counsel can be fired only “for good cause” by a senior Justice Department official.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said in a statement that the bill would be on the committee’s calendar this week.

Still, the legislation will encounter opposition from Republicans in both the House and Senate, who either support the president’s firing of Mueller or believe that such legislation would infringe on the separation of powers. In an interview, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, “I am fine with trying to add additional protections, but the problem is that there are genuine, legitimate, constitutional issues that arise.”

“I also wonder why anyone thinks the president would sign such a bill into law,” added Collins. “So maybe it sends a message, but I don’t really think it adds much practical effect.”

The House, meanwhile, will vote on a series of tax-related bills, including a bipartisan IRS reform bill that would create an independent office of appeals, reform the agency’s customer service system and more; a measure to give the Social Security Administration new tools to prevent electronic child-identity theft; and another to improve the IRS’s cybersecurity and identity protections.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to hold a hearing Tuesday on U.S. policy in Yemen with officials from the Defense and State departments as well as USAID. Chairman Bob Corker had originally hoped to hold a markup for new war authorization legislation Thursday, but said that would be delayed into the following week. He added that the panel could hold a hearing on the bill instead on Thursday, but nothing has been scheduled yet.

After holding a confirmation hearing for secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, last Thursday, Corker said the committee could vote on his confirmation as soon as next Monday. Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee will consider two nominations on Tuesday: Navy Adm. Philip Davidson to be commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy to be commandant of the U.S. Northern Command and commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The panel will also hold a posture hearing on Thursday for the Department of the Navy in review of the defense authorization request for fiscal year 2019.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on promoting the Defense Department’s culture of innovation on Tuesday and on the oversight and reform of the Pentagon on Wednesday.

And the House Foreign Affairs will meet for hearing on U.S. policy in the Middle East with State Department officials.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt won’t be taking the hot seat on Capitol Hill this week, and neither will any of his top lieutenants, even as House and Senate lawmakers continue to push through appropriations hearings for all federal agencies and departments. His fellow energy and environment cabinet members, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have testified on Capitol Hill frequently in recent weeks to sell their respective Fiscal Year 2019 budgets.

Pruitt has persevered through an onslaught of ethics allegations better than many political experts anticipated, thanks in no small part to an army of conservative advocates that have rallied to his side. Still, the alleged scandals continue to trickle in. And House Republican Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy is pressuring Pruitt to produce documents this week on his travel habits and Washington accommodations.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, however, is refusing to conduct oversight over Pruitt, instead deferring to an ongoing White House investigation that could potentially yield some results this week.

Meanwhile, the EPA inspector general plans to release a preliminary report Monday afternoon on the EPA’s use of a little-known statute, the Safe Drinking Water Act, to fill administrative positions. EPA officials reportedly used that statute in March to circumvent a White House denial and raise salaries for two of Pruitt’s top political staffers. The scope of the report may, however, be restricted to earlier hiring practice.

In more traditional legislative activity, all five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will testify before a subpanel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That body is tasked with adjudicating oil and natural-gas pipelines and liquefied natural-gas exports. It also plays a key role in the protection of the U.S. power grid.

The Senate energy committee will also hold a hearing Tuesday on the National Park Service’s $12 billion maintenance backlog. Zinke, along with a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers, is throwing his weight behind legislation that would funnel energy royalties into NPS maintenance. Murkowski hasn’t committed to backing that bill.

HEALTH

The House will tackle a slew of health care-related agenda items this week ranging from the opioid crisis to bioterrorism and emergency preparedness. On Tuesday, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee health subcommittee will have a hearing on a handful of bills, including the Veterans Opioid Abuse Prevention Act. The bill directs the Veterans Affairs secretary to connect VA health care providers to state-based prescription drug monitoring programs.

The House Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee with oversight of the Food and Drug Administration will have a budget hearing for the agency with Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Tuesday. The Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will also host a budget hearing for the Indian Health Service. The following day, the labor and health subcommittee will convene a budget hearing on Health and Human Services Department biodefense activities.

Following the hearings last week on opioid legislation in both chambers of Congress, the Senate Finance Committee is entering the fray on Thursday with a hearing on addressing opioid and substance-use disorders in Medicare and Medicaid.

The House Armed Services Committee military personnel subcommittee will also be focusing on this issue with a hearing on pain management, opioid prescription management, and reporting transparency.

And House members are not only contending with who will be their next speaker—should they keep the majority in the 2018 midterms—but the caucus is losing an entitlement-reform champion with House Speaker Paul Ryan retiring after this term.

Ryan described entitlement reform as one of the great goals he fought for throughout his career. “I am extremely proud of the fact that the House passed the biggest entitlement-reform bill ever considered in the House of Representatives,” he said last week. “Do I regret the fact that the Senate did not pass this? Yes. But I feel from all the budgets that I passed, normalizing entitlement reform, pushing the cause of entitlement reform, and the House passing entitlement reform, I’m very proud of that fact.”

TAXES

It’s game time for South Dakota and proponents of taxing online sales. Also, your tax returns are due.

The Supreme Court is set to hear South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. on Tuesday, in which the Court will consider whether states have the power to require collection of sales taxes for online transactions even if the retailer doesn’t have a physical presence in the state. A ruling in favor of the Mount Rushmore State could have a lasting impact on internet commerce, particularly for small- and medium-sized retailers who would have to adopt standards and software to help calculate sales tax in a variety of jurisdictions.

Some bigger companies with a large, built-in infrastructure, like Amazon, already collect sales taxes and back legislation in Congress to allow the states implement their own collection systems, but also prefer establishing a nationwide standard.

And it’s in Congress where the final regime standards could be crafted, particularly if the court doesn’t attach strong guidelines for states who want to implement a sales tax collection system similar to South Dakota, analysts have told National Journal. Business groups are fearful of a patchwork of 50 disparate state collection systems, which could create a morass of compliance issues.

The oral arguments are set for Tuesday, April 17, which is also tax day this year because April 15 is Sunday and Monday is Emancipation Day, a holiday celebrated in the District of Columbia. It marks the Compensated Emancipation Act, which Abraham Lincoln signed in 1862 abolishing slavery in the District.

The House package to reorganize the IRS—the biggest effort since 1998—is chugging along and will likely get a vote as soon as this week. The Ways and Means Committee approved a package of 12 bills to remake the agency structure last Wednesday and the legislation is set to move through the Rules Committee on Monday, meaning it’s possible the package could get a vote in the full House the following day, tax day.

Committee Democrats back the set of noncontroversial provisions and the package stands a good chance of passing the House. All that’s left is for Senate Democrats to weigh in on whether they will back the measure or push for their chamber to draft its own version. Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden said last Tuesday that he had yet to review the House legislation.

TECHNOLOGY

Net neutrality is returning to the policy stage after a few weeks out of the spotlight. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will meet Tuesday for a hearing on the wisdom of allowing internet service providers to prioritize certain types of data. The practice—paid or otherwise—was prohibited under the Federal Communications Commission’s old net-neutrality rules.

But many Republicans and some tech experts say there are good reasons to allow it even if other practices, such as blocking or throttling web traffic, are prohibited. Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn introduced legislation to prevent blocking or throttling last December, but the bill does not include a ban on prioritization. The question is one of several key sticking points when it comes to congressional legislation to codify net neutrality.

Congress is also taking another shot at the scourge of unwanted robocalls. The Senate Commerce Committee will meet Wednesday with representatives from the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to discuss how to prevent automated calls from harassing American consumers. On Thursday, lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection are also set to tackle the issue. Unwanted robocalls are a frequent consumer complaint at the FCC and FTC, and both agencies have spent years trying to stem the tide.

The FCC will hold its monthly open meeting Tuesday, and a proposed new national-security rule is at the top of its docket. While the commission currently provides subsidies to telecommunication providers who are expanding coverage into rural or underserved areas, it is now looking to pull those subsidies for companies that purchase equipment or services that could be could pose a national-security threat.

Telecom experts say the move is primarily aimed at Chinese providers of telecommunications hardware, and it comes as the Trump administration seeks to crack down on China’s allegedly unfair trade practices.

The FCC will also consider a rule that would streamline the application process for small telecommunication satellites—a priority for SpaceX and other companies now in the early stages of building massive satellite networks designed to beam broadband internet to hard-to-reach areas around the world.

WHITE HOUSE

President Trump will spend the week at his Florida resort home at Mar-a-Lago, mixing foreign policy summitry with politics. On Monday, he will preside over a roundtable in Hialeah to discuss tax cuts. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife at meetings and meals at Mar-a-Lago. On Thursday, he will visit the Naval Air Station on Key West. On Friday, he will participate in Republican National Committee events at Mar-a-Lago.

Daniel Newhauser, Adam Wollner, Brian Dabbs, Erin Durkin, Casey Wooten, Brendan Bordelon and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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