Congressional Update: Reconciliation, Power Sharing Agreement, & Committee Assignments
The Biden Administration and congressional Democrats have moved forward and approved the budgetary framework, known as Reconciliation, that will ultimately produce a federal spending relief package that may amount to the $1.9 trillion mark sought in the American Rescue Plan. Approval of the measure allows congressional committees to move ahead and draft legislative language that will implement program spending decisions that align with the American Rescue Plan’s provisions. Furthermore, the decision to use reconciliation means that the package will be subject to limited floor debate and only require a simple majority vote to pass and avoid objects from Republican lawmakers that would otherwise kill the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reaching a power-sharing agreement, the chamber is now able to go forward and begin legislative business for the 117th Congress. The power sharing agreement set the rules for how a 50/50 Senate will operate and, while text of the agreement has yet to be released as of this writing, it is expected that the agreement will be similar to the 2001 agreement when the chamber was last split 50/50 between the parties. It also finalized committee assignments for the new session that were held up until an agreement was reached. An important assignment is California’s new Senator Alex Padilla’s membership on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act, water infrastructure, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate Committee Considers USEPA Administrator Nominee
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held the nomination hearing for Michael Regan to be Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). While Republican committee members pressed Regan on how he would act as Administrator under the Biden Administration, overall, Regan’s nomination was well-received broadly across the committee. Regan, who currently serves as Secretary for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, testified to his experience and expertise if confirmed.

During the hearing, Democrat members asked Regan how USEPA, under his leadership, would handle regulating Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals that are contaminating the nation’s water resources. Regan stated that finalizing a regulatory standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act would be a priority for the Agency. He also committed to setting regulatory standards to limit industrial discharge of PFAS through wastewater.  There was no mention of setting regulatory mandates for PFAS under the Clean Water Act for wastewater treatment plants or biosolids under Superfund law during the hearing.

In addition to PFAS regulation, environmental justice will be a top priority at the Agency if Regan is confirmed. Regan stated that if confirmed an environmental justice advisor position will be created in the Agency and this person will report directly to the Administrator.  Regan said that he would set a requirement that there be media and press staff within each USEPA office and department who would be responsible for covering and monitoring environmental justice topics and concerns.

Regan fielded several questions concerning how he as Administrator would handle the waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rulemaking, given that the Biden Administration plans to review the rulemaking changes from the Trump Administration.  Regan explained that as Administrator, he would review the outcomes of the 2015 Obama-era WOTUS rule and the Trump-era WOTUS rule to determine the benefits and cons of both statutes and engage with policy and legal experts, and the agricultural community to determine how to develop a rulemaking that delivers the best outcomes for water quality protections, economic and agricultural practices.

Next steps will be for the committee to vote to report Regan’s nomination out of committee and to the Senate floor for debate and confirmation. A date for a committee vote on the nomination has yet to be scheduled.

Lawmakers Reintroduce Special Districts Legislation Ahead of COVID-19 Relief Package Consideration
Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have reintroduced companion legislation to clarify the definition of “local government” to include special districts to allow special districts eligibility to receive relief assistance in future COVID-19 relief packages. Special districts are units of local government that provide public services to residents that counties and cities do not provide, such as water and wastewater services. As explained in Garamendi’s press release, the Special Districts Provide Essential Services Act (H.R. 535/S. 91) would make special districts eligible for direct federal financial assistance appropriated by Congress and would be subject to the same oversight requirements as states, counties, and local governments receive, as well as provide special districts access to the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility. The Municipal Liquidity Facility provides states, counties and cities federally guaranteed “bridge financing” to help offset unexpected short-term revenue shortfalls, but does not extend to special districts. The legislation aims to extend financial relief to special districts in future congressional relief packages that have, up until now, been shutout of assistance eligibility.