117th Congress Officially Begins
The 117th Congress officially convened on Sunday, January 3 and a number of high-profile events are to take place in the first few weeks of the first session. After major upsets by the Democratic challengers in this week’s run-off Georgia Senate elections, the Senate will be split 50/50, with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote, giving Democrats control of the Senate. This means that Senate Democrats get to control the legislative agenda and a reshuffling of leadership at the committee will occur as Democrat Ranking Members become Chairs of their respective committees. The flipping of the Senate also means that Democrats control all three branches of government.
In the House, the chamber passed its first major legislative package of the session on Monday when it adopted the rules package (H.Res.8) along a party-line vote of 217-206. H.Res.8 is responsible for establishing the rules that will govern the legislative protocols for the 117th Congress. It was also the first major test to the cohesion of the Democrat Party in the new Congress after the party’s majority suffered losses in the November 2020 elections and saw its majority shrink to a slim 218 seats. H.Res.8 includes three key procedural changes.
First, it weakens the tool of “motions to recommit” (MTR) that is an important mechanism for the minority party to use to state its opposition and qualms on bills crafted by the majority party by removing the ability for the minority to use MTR to amend bills on the floor. Under the new rules, MTR would kick the bill back to committee where the majority party could easily override the minority’s objection. Second, the package establishes exemptions to a long-standing budget rule, known as PAYGO. PAYGO requires that proposed spending measures that would increase the deficit, if enacted into law, be offset. The package waives this requirement if the new spending is related to COIVD-19 or climate change and gives the Chairman of the Committee on Budget authority to determine what constitutes as COVID-19 or climate change-related measures. Finally, the package enhances congressional oversight measures. Importantly, the package did not address the earmark ban. Earmarks are a budgetary tool that allows lawmakers to target funding for specific projects or activities in spending bills. However, for the last decade, Congress has banned the use of earmarks. In the absence of a statement on earmarks in the rules package, it could mean that earmarks may be deemed eligible again. If earmarks are reinstated, they are likely to be governed by strict rules, as determined and developed by the Committee on Appropriations.
Finally, Congress will fulfill its constitutional duty of verifying the Electoral College vote for the next President of the U.S. on January 6. While traditionally a routine procedural practice of the President of the Senate, who is the outgoing Vice President, verifying the electoral vote on the Senate floor, this year’s verification process could be dragged out over the course of one or two days. Inauguration Day is January 20.
USEPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator to Depart
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water, David Ross, will be leaving the Agency this Thursday after serving three years in the position. USEPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced Ross’ departure to Agency staff in a memo earlier this week. The Office of Water is responsible for implementing the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts and protecting and restoring the nation’s water resources and aquatic ecosystems. Anna Wildeman will serve as the Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water with Ross’ departure. Wildeman currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant for the Office of Water. The position of Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water requires Senate confirmation. President-Elect Biden has yet to officially announce a nominee.