THIS WEEK IN CONGRESS - May 17, 2019

May 20, 2019

In this issue:

• Marianas strong

$100m+ for Yutu recovery

Medicaid “cliff” hearing called

Working with Labor

$12m to lower electricity costs

• Water, sewer set-aside increased

• Marshalls debt down payment

• Meeting fellow Micronesians

• Bernhardt talks policy

• $8.7m in covenant funds awarded

• Agent Orange exposure presumed

• #Be there for veterans

• Bill’s goal: more current data

• House passes LGBTQ rights bill

• CJS ups vital program funding

• School inequality bills marked

• Tinian divert comments sought

• Labor rule comments due 5/31

• $2.3m in compact impact funds

• $289k for the arts

• Congressional internships available

• Opportunities

• Legislative Highlights

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$100m+ for Yutu recovery

$205 million has been reserved for Marianas and American Samoa long-term disaster aid. The Department of Housing and Urban Development notified Congress this week of the set-aside of Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds. Congress appropriated the money in last year’s Public Law 115-254 to help areas struck by disasters in 2018. CDBG-DR grants help communities address unmet recovery needs not covered by the short-term aid from FEMA, SBA, and other first responders. CDBG-DR can be used to restore infrastructure and for economic revitalization. Funds can also help with the local cost-share of FEMA’s public assistance, which could be especially useful as the Commonwealth government struggles with lost revenue in the aftermath of the last year’s typhoons. Before awarding funds, HUD must approve a state or territory’s plan of action and certify the grant recipient has in place adequate financial controls and procurement processes. Because the Marianas has never before applied for or managed CDBG-DR grants and because of the very large amount of money being awarded, a team of HUD experts will be in the Marianas in June to provide expert guidance. Additional CDBG-DR for the Marianas is included in the $2.2 billion disaster aid bill we passed in the House last week.

Medicaid “cliff” hearing called

In my capacity as Vice Chair of the Natural Resources Committee for Insular Affairs, I have scheduled a hearing for Thursday on the Medicaid “cliff” facing the insular areas. Medicaid directors from the Marianas, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are invited as witnesses. I also asked Ms. Esther Muna, CEO of the Commonwealth Health Care Corporation, to appear. Although Medicaid is not within the specific jurisdiction of the Natural Resources Committee, the impending loss of the extra Medicaid money provided to all the insular areas by Obamacare will have too profound an impact to wait for another committee to take action. Bringing the Medicaid directors to Washington will give them an opportunity to meet with staff of the committees of jurisdiction, with federal agencies, and outside support groups. The solution to the Medicaid “cliff” will take cooperation among all.

$12m to lower electricity costs

Appropriators have honored three important requests I made for FY20. Chair Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) even highlighted the $12 million I asked for to help lower electricity costs for the Marianas at her Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee markup on Wednesday. The $12 million will kick-start action Congress mandated four years ago in Public Law 113-235 to cut import of costly fuels and modernize utility systems in the insular areas. Neither the Obama nor Trump administration has helped insular governments put together action plans, as the law required. Nor has the Interior Secretary approved any plan nor reported to Congress annually on progress towards meeting specific goals, as the law also requires. So, electric rates are still four times the rest of the U.S. The $12 million I asked for must be used as P.L. 113-235 dictates. The Marianas needs a 21st century power system to make electricity more affordable.

Water, sewer set-aside increased

Also at my request, the FY20 Interior appropriation increases the statutory set-asides for water and sewer funding for insular areas. The Safe Drinking Water Act provides a 0.33 percent set-aside. The Clean Water Act provides a 0.25 set-aside. I asked for—and got—1.5 percent for both grants. Total water and sewer funding went up 8 percent in the bill, further adding to the increase we will get. Beginning with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 and every year after, I have been able to lift water and sewer spending above the statutory limits, using the appropriation process. For the Marianas, that has meant over $60 million in additional funding and led to 24-hour water for Saipan households. Together with the $19.2 million I included in the disaster aid bill that passed the House last week, the Marianas will have funding for a significant upgrade and hardening of our water and sewer systems.

Marshalls debt down payment

A third important request was to begin payment on $20 million the U.S. owes to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Section 115 of the FY20 Interior spending bill includes a $5 million down payment. The Compact of Free Association Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-239) provided for a payment of “compensatory adjustments,” if the Marshalls experiences adverse economic impact from unilateral changes made by Congress to the Compact’s Title II tax and trade provisions. The RMI submitted a claim substantiating damage in September 2009. And an inter-agency group led by the Department of State concurred in 2010. Standing up for all of Micronesia has always been part of my work in Congress. The Marshalls has already waited too long for their promised compensation, putting America’s strategic relationship with this vital ally at risk. It is time the Marshalls got paid.

$8.7m in covenant funds awarded

Interior Assistant Secretary Doug Domenech has awarded the Commonwealth $8,665,000 in Covenant CIP grants for fiscal year 2019. Most of the money ($7.4 million) will be used for the local cost share of Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery projects. Of the remainder, $431,604 goes to the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation for the Granular Activated Carbon Treatment System, $101,550 goes for infrastructure maintenance, and $706,000 is for administration of CIP projects.

Bill’s goal: more current data

On Wednesday, I introduced a bill requiring the Census Bureau to conduct a census in the Marianas and other insular areas every five years. Without accurate and timely information on changes in the economy, employment, and other key indicators, insular governments, businesses, and the public cannot make the best decisions. Federal funding allocations are also largely based on the most recent data available, which for the Marianas is the 2010 Census. States do not have this problem because the American Community Survey collects their data annually. Insular representatives have worked for years to have the ACS expanded to include us. The Bureau insists it would be too expensive, however, and, because of small populations, the ACS statistical method may not be reliable in the islands. Time for a new approach: My bill, H.R. 2773, cosponsored by Reps. San Nicolas (D-Guam) and Radewagen (R-American Samoa), would cut the wait-time in half and provide more current and reliable data by adding a mid-decade census starting 2025.

CJS ups vital program funding

On Friday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies approved a fiscal year 2020 bill that rejects the damaging cuts in the Trump Administration’s budget, and provides needed increases to the key programs that support the Marianas. The bill supports various public safety programs such as the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant at $530 million, a $200 million increase over current levels. The legislation also provides $550 million for the Legal Services Corporation, an increase of $135 million above fiscal year 2019, to help increase the availability of legal assistance in underserved communities. The subcommittee also approved significant increases for NOAA programs that address the impacts of climate change, such as Coastal Zone Management and National Coastal Resilience Fund grants. The bill is scheduled to be considered by the full committee shortly.

House passes LGBTQ rights bill

Today the House passed H.R. 5, the Equality Act, which guarantees federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ Americans. The bill, of which I am an original cosponsor, amends existing laws to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, education, housing, public accommodations, credit, Federal financial assistance, and Federal jury service. Only 21 states bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only 20 states have such protections for gender identity. The Equality Act insures LGBTQ people have these protections regardless of where in our country they reside. The Act also protects their family and friends who, because of their association, may experience discrimination and harassment. Statutory exemptions, including those for religious organizations, in the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, remain in place. H.R. 5 passed by a vote of 236-173. The bill now goes to the Senate for action.

School Inequality Bills Approved

65 years after the Supreme Court’s decision against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, systemic inequality remains a challenge in our nation’s public schools and Democrats are moving to address these issues with the Strength in Diversity Act (H.R. 2639) and Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act (H.R. 2574). On Thursday, the Education and Labor Committee passed both bills which I cosponsored. H.R. 2639 creates grants to help communities develop and implement strategies to better integrate school districts so students have access to the same quality education as their peers within the same district. These grants could cover transportation and other expenses to enable students in the Marianas take courses, like Advanced Placement classes, at other schools which are not offered at their own school. H.R. 2574 restores an individual’s right to challenge discriminatory public school policies, rather than waiting for the U.S. Department of Education to take action.

Tinian divert comments sought

The U.S. Air Force is seeking public comment on the Tinian Divert Infrastructure Improvements Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). The Draft SEIS analyzes potential environmental impacts from the Air Force proposal to construct a fuel pipeline from the Tinian seaport to the airport, along with associated seaport infrastructure. The SEIS also looks at plans to improve existing roads between the sea and air ports that would be used to support Divert exercises. A public hearing will be held at the Tinian Elementary School cafeteria on June 6 from 5 to 8 pm, with Chamorro and Carolinian interpreters available. Comments can be provided at the public hearing, by mail, or submitted online at http://www.pacafdivertmarianaseis.com/provide-comments. The 45-day comment period ends July 1, 2019. For more information, go to http://www.pacafdivertmarianaseis.com/.

Labor rule comments due 5/31

The deadline for public comment on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Interim Final Rule on the Labor Certification Process for CW-1 workers is May 31, 2019. The requirement that CW applications include an approved temporary labor certification is among the changes to the CW program made by my bill, the U.S. Workforce Act of 2018. It was intended to insure U.S. workers are not passed over for jobs and that hiring CWs will not negatively impact U.S. worker wages and working conditions. USCIS announced in March that CW petitions for fiscal year 2020 would be rejected without an approved labor certification. For information and instructions for submitting formal comment electronically and by mail, and to view the rule, go to https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2019-05937.

$2.3m in compact impact funds

The Northern Marianas is receiving $2,261,330 in FY 2019 Compact Impact grant funding, the Office of Insular Affairs announced Monday. Appropriated by Congress, compact funding is provided to the Pacific insular areas and Hawaii to help defray health, education, and infrastructure costs associated with hosting migrants from the freely associated states of the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands who are allowed to live, study, and work throughout the U.S. In 2018, the Census Bureau estimated the number of FAS migrants in the Northern Marianas at 2,535, making up 5 percent of our population, a decrease of 5 percent from 2013.

$289k for the arts

Congratulations to the Commonwealth Council for the Arts & Culture on their $289,200 award from the National Endowment for the Arts this week. The grant will support artist, organizations, and community healing projects through arts. In the congressional appropriations process, I support robust federal funding for the arts each year to preserve local grants such as this through the NEA state and regional partnership program. The FY20 Interior Appropriations Bill moving to full committee markup next week includes the $167.5 million that I requested. These funds will go a long way to promoting our culture and helping the arts community on our islands.

OPPORTUNITIES

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LEGISLATIVE HIGHLIGHTS

THIS WEEK

On the Floor

  • H.R. 987 – Strengthening Health Care and Lowering Prescription Drug Costs Act (Passed, 234-183)
  • H.R. 5 – Equality Act (Passed, 236-173)
  • H.R. 312 – Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (Passed, 275-146)
  • H.R. 375 – To reaffirm the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for Indian Tribes (Passed, 323-96)
  • H.R. 299 – Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 (Passed, 410-0)

NEXT WEEK

On the Floor

  • H.R. 1500 – Consumers First Act
  • H.R. 1994 – Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019

Committee Activity

Tuesday, May 21

  • Committee on Education and Labor will hold a full committee hearing on "Eliminating Barriers to Employment: Opening Doors of Opportunity."
  • The Water, Oceans & Wildlife Subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing on "Examining the President's Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

Wednesday, May 22

  • Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment will hold a hearing on “Engines of Economic Mobility: The Critical Role of Community Colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions in Preparing Students for Success.”
  • The Water, Oceans & Wildlife Subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing on "Responding to the Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services."

Thursday, May 23

  • Committee on Natural Resources will hold a full committee oversight hearing on "The Insular Areas Medicaid Cliff."