Congress will have busy week
Whether you care about coastal restoration, flood insurance or the cost of attending college, this promises to be a busy week in Congress.
Oh, and by the way, apparently the Supreme Court might have something to say about health care. But, for the purposes of this column, let’s stick with the U.S. Capitol across the street from the nation’s top court.
Essentially, there are a lot of July 1 deadlines looming.
First up, Congress has to act in some form or fashion on the federal transportation funding bill that also would direct billions of dollars in BP fine money to Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states.
The transportation bill is sitting in a large conference committee and negotiations are winding down to the last minute on everything from total spending to the potential inclusion of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas.
The legislation holds the RESTORE Act provisions that guarantee 80 percent of the fines collected from the April 2010 BP oil leak — an amount that could reach $20 billion — would be distributed for coastal restoration to the five states along the Gulf: Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Alabama.
The gridlock in Congress that has become the norm suggests the House and Senate won’t reach a compromise and they will pass another extension that would cost the construction industry thousands of jobs.
However, there are signs that all hope is not lost. After lots of back-and-forth, blame-game rhetoric, conference committee leaders Sen. Barbara Boxer, R-Calif., and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., even put out a joint, but incredibly vague, statement.
“The conferees have moved forward toward a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a highway reauthorization bill. Both House and Senate conferees will continue to work with a goal of completing a package by next week,” they stated.
The original sponsor of the RESTORE Act, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she feels much more optimistic than she did early last week.
“We’re now really optimistic that this bill can move,” Landrieu said. “We still have some negotiations to do.”
Next up is the July 1 date for interest rates on new federal student loans to double unless Congress acts.
President Barack Obama has made the lowered student loan rates a key re-election campaign issue and GOP nominee Mitt Romney has also said he wants to keep the rates down. The interest rates on Stafford loans were lowered from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent five years ago. But the lower rate expires after June and would return to the interest rate of 6.8 percent for students taking new loans out this fall.
Those with current Stafford loans would not be affected unless students take out new loans.
Extending the lower Stafford loan rate would save $79 million for 83,243 Louisiana residents expected to take out the loans, according to White House figures. That makes for an average savings of $949 per student.
Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress have all pledged they want to keep the interest rates low, but have disagreed on exactly how.
The other key issue coming up this week that affects many Louisianians is debate on the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP.
The deadline this time is not until the end of July, but the five-year NFIP bill by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is scheduled for Senate floor debate this week.
The NFIP allows homeowners and businesses in flood zones that have trouble getting private insurance to obtain policies backed by the federal government.
About 500,000 people in Louisiana participate in the NFIP. The program has been in financial distress with a loss of $18 billion, mostly due to payments made after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
If the program lapses, current insurance policies remain in effect but applications cannot move forward.
Vitter has said many real estate closings “came to a screeching halt” in 2010 when the program lapsed.
Congress has sustained the flood insurance program by approving six-month extensions in recent years.
So, while it’s very much unknown what will get accomplished, at least the public can rest assured their congressional representatives are working this week. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up for debate.
Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington
bureau. His email address firstname.lastname@example.org.