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Congress did manage to get some big bills passed last week, you might have heard, but it made little progress on normal appropriations for fiscal 2023. In fact, another continuing resolution on Oct. 1 is looking inevitable. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the latest from WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.
Tom Temin: And let’s start right at the top with the budget here, Mitchell. Ranking members of important committees are saying no, we’re not going to get it done.
Mitchell Miller: Right. Despite all the activity that’s been going on on Capitol Hill over the last several days and last week with the house rushing to get out. Really, it was pretty amazing to hear when we were in a reporter session with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. And he was asked directly, are we looking at a possible CR? And he said, just frankly, it’s inevitable. I mean, without any doubt, and he just said, we have six appropriations bills that are teed up here in the House. But that was why they didn’t vote on them last week, because he said, if we vote on them, they’re not going to go anywhere. And of course, he pointed the finger, which he can, at the Senate, which just continually year after year, as you know, does not come through and everything gets pushed back. So he has no doubt that the CR is coming down the line. Even though a lot of these bills, they did a lot of work on them in the house over the last several weeks, they probably could have had votes on several of these bills. But he said, Steny Hoyer said they’re just not going to do it unless the one possibility would be with budget reconciliation, we can talk about that in a moment, if the House were to come back in August at some point during their break, essentially, he says it is possible that they could take a vote on some of these appropriations bills. But he doesn’t really indicate there’s a lot of optimism there.
Tom Temin: And if they therefore think that it is inevitable, then they probably won’t do any further work on it until the CR takes place. And then they’ll rush it into an omnibus?
Mitchell Miller: Yeah, that’s what it looks like once again, because Steny Hoyer just saying, why basically put in all this work on the House side, if it’s just going to end up in the CR anyway? And so then we’re going to get into that usual, even more intense situation with the midterms coming up, where we are going to get the CR and everything jammed into the omnibus and them just trying to stretch it out as long as they can.
Tom Temin: And so then how could reconciliation figure in at this point?
Mitchell Miller: Well that could actually move along some of these appropriations bills, as I alluded to. Really, it was a bombshell that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced this deal late last week. It actually surprised many Democratic senators, and that was intentional, I believe. There’s been a huge cat-and-mouse game going on with not only Democrats but Republicans. You may recall that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican, had threatened to just say, No, we’re not going to go along with the CHIPS bill if you guys start moving ahead on budget reconciliation. Everything kind of quieted down. Actually, Sen. Manchin got COVID. And I think many Republicans thought that the Democrats just weren’t going to get anything moved forward, suddenly, they come out with this announcement for a very much pared down, Build Back Better. They don’t even call it “Build Back Better” anymore. In fact, to buffett itself against inflation charges from Republicans, they’re calling it the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. So what could happen is this week, if things all fell into place, and a lot of things have to fall into place for the Democrats, they could push through this budget reconciliation, obviously, with no support from the Republicans who are strongly opposed to it. And then, if the House had to come back, they could pick up some of these appropriations bills, but a lot of moving parts as usual here.
Tom Temin: Right. Well, they’re kind of like alcoholics on their 15th round, saying, “Don’t worry, I can handle it. I can handle it,” calling that deficit reduction – a straight face.
Mitchell Miller: It’s really amazing that this even came around. I frankly, there were a lot of Democratic lawmakers that just did not think it would get even this close at this point.
Tom Temin: And just switching gears here, by the way, we’re speaking with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller, Congress has been really looking at this VA Electronic Health Record system, which is getting more expensive, further out into the future and just been troublesome where it has been tested at facilities. And so with Congress getting involved, things could get complicated there.
Mitchell Miller: Absolutely. A lot of members of Congress from both parties are really concerned about the costs of this, moving, migrating this electronic health record system and making it get over supposedly to improve it. The House VA committee ranking member Mike Bost of Illinois, he was really upset in connection with a proceeding last week saying that it’s going to cost something on the order of close to $40 billion to implement over about 13 years. And then there are maintenance costs that go along with it. He essentially says it’s just going to be a bad investment. Some of the Democrats, while they also share those concerns, say look, we’re already spending a lot of this money. We need to get this basically on the right track so that it actually takes place. But as you’re well aware, the VA has had a lot of issues in connection with electronic records and computers just being outdated and it is really becoming a tough job to move all these records over.
Tom Temin: I think one item that might help is the fact that the prime contractor here at Cerner Corporation was acquired, that acquisition just completed a couple months ago, by Oracle, which has a long, long, long history. It’s one of the original federal IT contractors.
Mitchell Miller: That’s right.
Tom Temin: And there’s some technical chops there and some political savvy and some acquisition savvy that we could still see kick in.
Mitchell Miller: Yeah, I agree with you that Oracle could really help things along, instead of having what happens, as you know, with a lot of these agencies, it just gets to this inertia, and it just never seems to get resolved. Whereas this is a company that does have a track record, as you say, that could push this along. And I think that there are some lawmakers that are really hoping that will happen.
Tom Temin: And getting back to the CHIPS Act. Besides the semiconductor industry, there is a lot more in this that I think has been a little bit overlooked. And that is what it does for the Commerce Department, the Energy Department, and I think the National Science Foundation.
Mitchell Miller: Right, a lot of the attention, of course, has gone to the $52 billion that will essentially subsidize a lot of the semiconductor industry and go into some of the research. But really, there are hundreds of billions of dollars, in addition to this, that are going to everything from NASA to the Energy Department, I mean, just a run down to some of the areas where they’re going to be getting money. This was partly from a breakout that was released by Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen. National Science Foundation getting more than $80 billion over five years; NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is going to double its financial baseline; the Department of Energy overall, the Office of Science getting $50 billion, and there’s nearly $18 billion more for DOE. Also, a lot of people don’t know this, but the Department of Commerce is getting billions of dollars for technology hubs. And this is this idea that they would basically utilize the government to spur more creation of inventions, technology, and move all of this forward. So there’s a lot here more than meets the eye, I think for something like CHIPS, which of course, politically as you’re aware, Democrats and Republicans are really praising this as something that they have been trying to do for years, and just haven’t been able to do it. It’s gone through something like six different names over the years before they finally decided to call it, Sen. Schumer said they’re gonna call it Chips and Science is the name of the bill. And then it was later passed by the House last week. So this was a pretty big accomplishment for Congress in a year when a lot of differences still remain.