Climate bill totally up in the air: Washington Update

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Climate Bill Timing is Uncertain

Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) have been working on bi-partisan climate legislation behind the scenes for months. The scheduled April 26 release of the bill language came and went last week, and has now been postponed until further notice. The climate bill negotiations fell apart last month when Senator Graham indicated that he was going to pull out due to shifting legislative priorities within the Administration and congressional leadership. Graham wrote in a letter on April 24th that he was compelled to withdraw from the climate effort following reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might bring an immigration package to the Senate floor ahead of the climate bill.

Senators Kerry and Lieberman are working to patch things up with Graham and get him back to the negotiating table on climate change, in the meantime, they have sent key language from the bill to EPA in order to start the 6-8 week economic and environmental modeling process that has to be completed before the bill comes to the floor. It remains unclear how the Administration and congressional leadership will move forward with the legislative agenda for the remainder of the year.

There is still time to weight in with Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham in support of funding clean transportation with climate revenues. Take action today with Transportation for America.

House Financial Services Approves the GREEN Act

The Green Resources for Energy Efficient Neighborhoods (GREEN) Act of 2009 was approved by the House Financial Services Committee last Thursday. The legislation, HR 2336, was introduced by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) last May. The bill establishes a residential energy efficiency block grant program, provides resources for community organizations to extend the availability of energy efficient products for existing homes and includes provisions to provide incentives and a demonstration program for HUD-financed buildings to meet energy efficiency standards. The bill also promotes energy efficient and location efficient mortgages.

The GREEN Act has already passed the House once, as part of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, but was stalled when the Senate failed to take up that legislation last summer. After the addition of a manager’s amendment, which made “bipartisan changes”, including the removal of GSE-related provisions and the inclusion of language from Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy’s (D-OH) bill Energy Efficiency Modernization Act (HR 4099), the Financial Services Committee approved the bill by voice vote.

Future of Transportation is Topic of Several Hearings
LIVABILITY PROGRAMS ARE IN, FUNDING STILL UP IN THE AIROn April 14, two hearings were held examining transportation issues that will need to be addressed in the next six-year surface transportation authorization bill. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard from several panels of witnesses on transportation safety. Discussion mostly focused on measures to increase use of seatbelts and helmets, reduce DUIs and prohibit texting while driving. There were, however, positive statements made by both witnesses and committee members on the success of Safe Routes to School (SRTS) and the need to address bicycle and pedestrian safety through measures such as complete streets policies. Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari testified that SRTS is a type of program that is very compatible with the Administration’s new Livable Communities Initiative and referenced an FHWA Federal Advisory Committee report that calls for the expansion of the SRTS program and increased funding. This hearing was the final transportation hearing for EPW and they will now be working internally to draft their own transportation authorization bill.

Later that day, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit heard testimony on financing options for highway and transit projects. Like several hearings before it, members and witnesses discussed a variety of innovative financing tools but did not reach any strong conclusions about new funding sources, leaving the elephant looming large in hearing rooms on Capitol Hill. The committee largely agreed that a new funding source needs to be identified and that leveraging funding through innovative financing options will only be part of the solution. Oberstar reiterated his plan for the Highway Trust Fund to be supported with a $130 billion loan from the general treasury. He envisions this loan being paid back out of Highway Trust Fund revenues in four years, at which time a 10-15 cent increase to the federal gas tax would also go into effect.

Energy Efficiency and Location Efficiency Key for New Bills

Last week two pieces of legislation in favor of smart growth principles were introduced in Congress. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill (S. 3212) to create a Green Building Tax Credit. His legislation is designed to encourage livable communities by creating a refundable 30 percent tax credit for the construction of buildings that are energy-efficient and location-efficient. To qualify for the credit, projects would have to meet certain criteria in the categories of green standards, transit-oriented (or near town centers in rural areas), mixed-income, high density, large scale and construction start within 36 months.

Also last week, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative was announced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY.) This legislation would invest $1 billion through loans and grants to help build approximately 2,100 new grocery stores in high need areas across the country.

Brownfields Funding

EPA has announced ( the availability of grant funds and direct assistance for 20 area-wide planning pilot projects. Communities will be able to use the funding to develop area-wide plans for brownfields-impacted areas including neighborhoods, districts, city blocks, and corridors. Funding can be directed to creating strategies that will help ensure successful assessment, cleanup, and reuse of brownfields sites, developing approaches for reusing existing infrastructure, and identifying next steps and resources needed to implement the area-wide plan. Applications are due June 1, and up to $175,000 will be awarded to each application chosen.

FHA Reform Act of 2010 Approved by House Financial Services

On April 28, the House Financial Services Committee marked up and approved legislation to reform the Federal Housing Administration. The legislation, the FHA Reform Act of 2010 (HR 5072), was introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) on April 20, 2010. The overall goal of the bill is to ensure the overall viability of the FHA to make sure the administration will be able to continue to insure mortgages.

The bill proposes changes to the cap on annual mortgage insurance premiums, raising to 1.55% from 0.55% on mortgages with down payments below 5%, though representatives from FHA have said they will not raise the premiums over 0.9%. It also urges FHA to crack down on lenders that are fraudulent, misrepresentative or not adhering to lending requirements. This legislation would also authorize the FHA to revoke the ability of national lenders to originate or underwrite mortgages based on the behavior of regional branches.

EPA Administrator Testifies Before House Energy and Commerce Committee

Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on clean energy policies that reduce dependence on oil. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified on policies including the recent tailpipe greenhouse gas standards and associated endangerment finding.

A number of Republicans on the committee expressed concerns about the endangerment finding, which was a rule signed by the Administrator last December. The rule found that six key greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – constitute in combination “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” The second part found that emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles will contribute to atmospheric levels of greenhouse gas pollution. The members opposed to these findings are working to nullify this rule because it would remove the legal basis for greenhouse gas emissions standards for new cars. Jackson addressed these efforts stating “eliminating the EPA standard would forfeit one quarter of the combined program’s fuel savings and one third of its greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”

Jackson also indicated that the administration plans to start working on new rules that will govern fleetwide fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions for 2017 and beyond.

House Agriculture Committee Gathers Ideas on Farm Policy

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House Agriculture committee in preparation for the 2012 reauthorization of the Farm bill. Secretary Vilsack outlined some of the key issues the Administration would address in the next farm bill, including broadband access in rural areas, renewable energy and biofuels, regional food systems and supply chains, ecosystem market incentives and conservation and forest restoration. He indicated that the Administration was in the process of working on a formal farm bill proposal.

Many members expressed concerns about beginning the reauthorization process before final rules have been set from the last bill that was completed just two years ago. Members also shared a growing concern about financing the next bill in the current economy. The committee plans to hold a series of hearings both in Washington and throughout the country over the next two weeks to gather ideas for the farm bill.