Congress certainly has a long to-do list

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Congress — most of it, anyway — returns to Washington with a long agenda. At the top of the list is what will be in a fourth stimulus bill if there is one. With everything from marijuana banking to pension plans stuffed into the House’s HEROES Act, that’s not the way things are likely to look. For more on the agenda, Bloomberg Government editorial director Loren Duggan joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Loren, so just brief us – House and senate are back. Are all the members in though or is it, some still teleworking even though there’s officially a session?

Loren Duggan: So the House is holding votes this week. The Senate is not. They’ll be back next week after I think it’s one of three weeks in session. But one thing we will see that’s different this week is the House is using its proxy voting for the first time. This was a provision they adopted when they came back to pass the HEROES Act. That allows members to sign letters saying I’m not coming in to vote but this other member can cast a vote on my behalf. And members can collect up to 10 of these proxies for their colleagues come to the floor and cast votes on on their behalf when the House picks up legislation this week, so it will be interesting to see that in practice – something that was very controversial when it was adopted – and we’ll have to see exactly how many people take him up on that. But a little bit different but, a return to normalcy trying to get back to voting on a number of bills, not all of which have to do with the coronavirus.

Tom Temin: And there are lots of provisions banding about for the Veterans Affairs Department.

Loren Duggan: Right. It’s a tradition in the House to take up veterans-related legislation around Memorial Day. They’re keeping that up this year. One is a cost of living adjustment for veterans provisions. They do this every year, even though it has a cost, CBO just assumes it’s going to happen. It’s a regular thing, and this would boost the benefits by the same amount as Social Security benefits if there is indeed one that hasn’t been announced. There’s also a provision that would allow some of the VA Health officials to get a higher salary than they currently can lifting the cap for them. CBO said that would affect about seven people. But it’s still a bill that right now with health officials under pressure, it’s a very timely bill as well, to make sure that those officials at the VA are getting the salary that the government thinks they should. So those are some of the VA bills that are coming up this week. And obviously, they’re looking longer term to funding for the VA for the rest of the year as part of the spending process that is still kind of happening very much in the background at this point.

Tom Temin: And Bloomberg Government is reporting that when the Senate returns, it may look at whether spending caps should apply to certain VA accounts. Correct?

Loren Duggan: 
Yes, this has been something we’ve been looking into. There’s real pressure on the budget for this year. There’s a small increase from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021 under that spending cap deal reached last year. And with all the additional spending that’s going to be needed for the coronavirus, there’s interest in finding ways to spend more and stay under those caps. So one of the ideas that is been discussed in the Senate is maybe exempting more VA Health accounts from the caps designating it as an emergency. If you did that, then that would take pressure off the other accounts that need to fit in under that spending cap. So that’s an idea that seems to be gaining traction. There was a meeting last week with Richard Shelby, the Senate Appropriations chairman, and the president. It seemed to be very positive based on Richard Shelby’s report about what they do about spending this year. So even though we haven’t seen any markups or any bill text come out for appropriations, we do know there’s action behind the scenes trying to get that process underway, in a year where that was already tough with elections and, other recesses that need to be taken. So that’s something that we’re watching very closely to see how soon they start moving on those bills.

Tom Temin: Washington arithmetic. We’re speaking with Bloomberg Government editorial director, Loren Duggan. And also in that House bill, there were lots of telework provisions for federal employees. Is the Senate likely to look at those also, that is to say pick parts of the HEROES out – HEROES Act out that it likes and leave the rest behind?

Loren Duggan: We’ll have to see. The Senate Republicans in particular have been slow to pull together another package here. They said that they wanted to see how the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and the follow on were being applied, how the money was getting through the economy, and what to do next. The HEROES Act had a lot of provisions in it. Some of them were brand new to the coronavirus and you mentioned at the start, that there were things in there like marijuana banking and a pension bill that had been around for a while, even perhaps gotten through the House before, but were then pulled into this package. What I think we’ll see happen is when they sit down and start negotiating, some of these things will be jettisoned right away from the House bill, because they just aren’t on the same playing field as where the Republicans want to be. What’s interesting with the telework provision is at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in March, there was a bipartisan bill in the Senate with Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat; James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican; and Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, trying to get the government to be more open in its telework policies, especially then there was a lot of uncertainty of what was happening. So there has been bipartisan support before for a more open telework policy, whether that makes its way into another coronavirus bill or as part of the NDAA process where often governmentwide employee provisions come up, we’ll have to see. Obviously, we’re in a different place with reopening than we were back in March, where more people want to see more things open. The federal government is one of those things that’s beginning to open. And obviously there’s employees around the country, that there might be a different situation out in parts of the country than there are here in the DMV area where we still have a high rate of transmission, but we’ll have to see what happens there.

Tom Temin: And finally, what about getting that IG – the Inspector General for pandemic oversight? I think it’s Brian Miller is the nominee. And so that’s really not full strength yet until there’s someone in place to run that program.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. And he’s one of the nominations that Mitch McConnell, the majority leader t’ed up for their comeback week, next week in the first week of June. He’s one of the four or five nominees that’s in that list. So depending on how long it takes to process those votes, file for cloture, get cloture, and then obviously move on to the actual vote. He could be confirmed sometime next week. He got through one of the committees and then the other one, actually, Government Affairs Committee discharged him. So it’s on the way to happening but it just hasn’t happened yet. So maybe by the end of next week, there will be that idea in place?

Tom Temin: Lots to watch out for in the next couple of weeks here. Loren Dugan is editorial director of Bloomberg Government, as always, thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.