For the week of Nov. 17 to 21, the Senate fell two votes shy on bill limiting the government’s ability to access phone records under NSA and fell one vote shy to pass the construction of Keystone Pipeline. The House passed several EPA-related pieces of legislation. Also, House Republicans and Democrats selected chairmen and “ranking members” (top member from minority party) for all 21 committees.

The Senate and House are in recess for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Key Committee Chairmanships

House and Senate Republicans selected their committee chairmanships for the 114th Congress, which convenes in January. There were few surprises in either chamber, but a couple of appointments stand out. Congressman Ryan was chosen to lead the House tax-writing panel, the Ways and Means Committee, while Sen. Hatch was chosen to head the Senate counterpart, the Senate Finance Committee. Of note, Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be chaired by Sen. Murkowski and Ranking Member, Sen. Mary Landrieu or Maria Cantwell (depending on the Louisiana runoff in two weeks). Additionally, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will be Chaired by Sen Inhofe, with Ranking Member Sen. Boxer.

Uphill Battle for Tax Credit

Supporters of the renewable production tax credit (PTC) are recognizing that they now face an uphill battle to keep the tax credit as the political landscape in Washington, D.C. continues to evolve. Earlier this week, House Ways and Means member Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) is quoted as saying that  President Barack Obama’s immigration push may also make it harder for conservatives to swallow a two-year extension of the renewable production tax credit. “I think that our guys are going to be so upset,” he said.

In the Senate, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) remains hopeful that an effort to overhaul the tax code can gain momentum next year and provide a platform for members who want to change temporary tax provisions like the PTC. But he acknowledged that newly-elected Republicans who want to advance fiscally conservative policies will make it more difficult to keep the credit, especially in its current form. “As this debate wears on, newer Republicans get elected who don’t represent wind states,” Thune said. “Politically, it’s getting harder to sustain the current tax treatment, so that’s why I think we got to come up with a gradual, phased transition plan, but one that provides certainty so that people aren’t left just twisting in the wind, so to speak.” With the challenges that the PTC is facing, supporters best option may be winning a lame-duck extension. Particularly since incoming Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis) has already come forward and stated that he is no fan of the credit.
 

New Internet Taxes?

Supporters of the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), which would give states the authority to collect sales tax from out-of-state online retailers, hope to pass the MFA into law before year’s end but face long odds. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) opposes the Senate-passed MFA and will only schedule a vote on the measure if it is substantially revised. MFA proponents hoped to attach the legislation to a more popular bill that will extend the current prohibition on Internet access taxes. The House has previously passed the “Internet Tax Freedom Act” (ITFA) to permanently extend the moratorium protecting Internet access, but the moratorium expires on December 11. We expect Congress to pass a version of ITFA between the upcoming holidays without the MFA attached to it. The length of the extension is still under discussion, but we believe it will be for two years and possibly longer.


Keeping Government Open

Federal government agencies and operations are only funded through December 11. This means Congress will have to pass a new funding bill before then to avert a government shutdown. Passage of such a bill will be a very high priority for both the House and Senate in early December. Although there is support from both parties to pass such a bill, Democrats (who are still in charge of the Senate) would prefer to pass a bill for the rest of the fiscal year (through September 30, 2015), while many House Republicans may prefer to pass a shorter funding extension, perhaps into February. Such an effort would allow Republican leaders to try to de-fund President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform when they control both chambers. That effort would be vetoed by the President, but Republicans will want to be on record for opposing the executive order. A shorter-term extension will likely prevail when Congress settles this issue in early December.


Executive Action on Immigration

President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform is controversial to say the least. It will complicate efforts for the two parties to come together on a wide range of policy issues. The issue helps to unify most Democrats, who are still stinging from the mid-term election results, while it generally pushes Republicans further away from a spirit of compromise.

The challenge for Republicans is—what can they do about it? They can try to pass legislation de-funding any government action to implement the order, but the President would veto such a measure. They can have a showdown with the President, but voters are tired of showdowns. The solution getting quiet attention now is to pursue legal action and let the courts decide whether the President has the legal authority to issue the order. This would allow House and Senate Republicans early next year to try to pass other legislation and show voters they can govern in general. They could even try to pass the other half of immigration reform—changes to the legal immigration process—where there is more of a bipartisan consensus. Look for this legal approach to be pursued if cooler heads in the GOP prevail.

 

New life for Yucca Mountain

With potential changes in the Senate, Yucca Mountain could have a future. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was to be a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other high level radioactive waste. It was to be located on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, about 80 mi (130 km) northwest of the Las Vegas Valley. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) is keeping the door open for Yucca Mountain to play a role for nuclear waste. She is quoted this week as saying, “I definitely want to get rid of our nuclear waste and either that as an option or, we’ve been pushing lately [to] separate the military from commercial waste.”

Cantwell’s fellow Washington Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray, is pressing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “thoroughly” consider the stalled licensing application for Yucca Mountain. Sen. Cantwell’s support is not too surprising given that her home state houses vast quantities of radioactive waste in its Hanford facility. But, it is certainly noteworthy as many expect her to assume the top Democratic spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee if Sen. Landrieu loses in next month’s runoff.


City facing Challenges Implementing Backflow Rule

Chippewa Falls has work to do to bring city homes and businesses in line with a state regulation regarding plumbing systems. In late September, the city received an official notice of non-compliance with the state-wide Cross Connection Control Program from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The cross connection program mandates the city periodically inspects every home and business to ensure that connections between plumbing lines that have drinkable and non-drinkable water are properly fitted with a backflow prevention device. That device ensures that waste water doesn’t contaminate drinking water when there’s a loss of pressure in the city’s water system. The city had been aware that the DNR was starting to push municipalities to update compliance since last November.

The city approved the Comprehensive Cross Connection Control Program in January. For the program, the city is teaming with Hydrodesigns, a consulting company out of New Berlin, to bring Chippewa Falls up to code on an ordinance that has been on the books since 1986. Part of the cross connection agreement with Hydrodesigns was for that company to carry out the inspections of commercial and industrial properties.

“We are on schedule there,” said Chippewa Falls Director of Public Works Rick Rubenzer. “It’s the residential properties that the city is behind on." One option to get inspections back on schedule would be to add residential inspections to Hydrodesigns’ contract. Hiring another employee to help do the work would be another option for the city. While the policy to have backflow prevention devices installed isn’t new, the DNR wants municipalities to provide an updated ordinance. The new ordinance would be similar to the old one, though it establishes a timeframe that businesses and homeowners who are found to be in violation of the ordinance to install proper devices to their plumbing.


Heated Driveways Growing in Popularity

As parts of the country dig out from major snow storms this week, one industry is seeing the value of their services rising in the public's eye. “It’s becoming more and more popular because of an aging population of boomers who are just tired of shoveling,” says Bryan Morris, director of sales for Warmzone, a company in Utah that designs and supplies radiant heat systems. “We sell a great deal to whoever gets snow.”

David Veron, who owns The Veron Co., a landscape and design business in Marlborough, Massachusetts, sees the popularity of heated driveways as part of a larger trend: Homeowners are trying to build outdoor spaces they can use year-round. In addition to driveways, his customers are heating walkways that lead to amenities such as hot tubs and fire pits.

“It’s nice to sit around those in the winter,” Veron says. “But if you have to shovel first, it’s too much of a chore.” Morris says the uptick in business started last winter: “People were calling us saying, ‘I can’t keep up.’ ” Interest persisted through the summer, since the warmer months are prime time for doing the work to install heated driveways. “It’s a classic example how you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind,” one homeowner who put in the heated driveway when his house was built in 2005 is quoted as saying in a local news article this week. “Given the climate of Chicago in the winter, it was really nice not to have to shovel.”

Dain Hansen is vice president of government relations for The IAPMO Group, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dain.hansen@iapmo.org, 202/414-6177.