Your Congress in Action is a series that highlights the Capitol Hill news that affects CRM firms the most. Be sure to subscribe to the ACRAsphere to ensure you don't miss an update.
December is normally a fairly quiet month in Washington, as legislative battles give way to holiday parties and the countdown to vacation.
Of course, this year there won’t be many holiday parties (unless you count the ones on Zoom), and most people will be stay-cationing. Plus, with a contentious presidential transition, a worsening pandemic and a struggling economy, December promises to be a busy month in the nation’s capital.
On Capitol Hill, pressure is growing for another round of COVID-related stimulus. For months, Congress has battled over an economic recovery plan, with Democrats pushing for a $2.2 trillion plan and Republicans offering a smaller $500 billion proposal.
Last week, a bipartisan group of Senators proposed a new plan totaling $906 billion. According to the Washington Post, “the plan would devote close to $300 billion in another round of small business aid; provide $160 billion for state and local governments; fund federal unemployment benefits at $300 per week; and devote tens of billions of dollars to other priorities, such as child care, hunger and vaccine distribution… The bipartisan proposal would not, however, include a new round of stimulus checks.”
Congressional Democratic leaders indicated they could support the plan as the starting point of negotiations, and Republicans indicated an openness to it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) and Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R) spoke by phone for the first time in weeks, a hopeful sign that Congress could act on the plan soon.
Any progress is good news: even as COVID vaccines race towards FDA approval, a weak jobs report on Friday underscored that the economy is a long way from recovery. And as the number of COVID infections and hospitalizations continues to skyrocket in nearly every part of the country, we could be facing a rough few months.
The possibility of small business relief and funding for state and local government is particularly welcome to ACRA and its members. The economic downturn has crippled state and local budgets; the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 46 out of 50 states have cut their budgets in response to the pandemic and recession, and nearly half of states have taken steps that impact public employees, like layoffs, furloughs and pay freezes. These cuts will undoubtedly impact State Historic Preservation Offices, making federal aid critical.
The small business support is also essential. With roughly 97 percent of ACRA member firms classified as small businesses, ACRA has been making a forceful case to lawmakers that additional loans and relief is needed to prevent layoffs.
Even so, the $300 billion in small business aid in the package will not be a cure-all. The amount is roughly half of Congress provided in Paycheck Protection Program support last spring. To make matters worse, it was reported last week that a good chunk of those first PPP loans didn’t even reach small companies; according to the Post, “about 600 mostly larger companies, including dozens of national chains, received the maximum amount allowed under the program of $10 million.” In addition, many CRM firms have reported challenges with interpreting and complying with ever-changing rules from the U.S. Small Business Administration. To be fair, rolling out a massive program in a short period of time is inevitably going to lead to some confusion, but that’s no comfort to small firms trying to save jobs and follow the law.
If more money comes, the SBA and other federal agencies will need to make sure the rules make sense come next year. That brings up the other big topic of discussion in Washington these days: the transition. Next week, electors will meet in all 50 state capitols and in the District of Columbia to formally cast electoral votes. As states continue to certify the results, opportunities for the Trump campaign to contest the results continue to dry up. This means that in less than 40 days’ time, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the nation’s 46th President.
Transitions are always busy times in Washington as the president-elect forms their government and the outgoing president rushes burnish their legacy. This year is no different. Even as President Trump declines to concede the election, his administration is using the regulatory process to put their stamp on government. ProPublica has launched a website (https://projects.propublica.org/trump-midnight-regulations/) to track these so-called “midnight regulations.” As ProPublica notes, “It’s common for outgoing administrations to rush through last-minute rules, but these ‘midnight regulations’ can sometimes shortchange public input or thorough analysis, and they may tie the hands of the incoming president.”
Among these last-minute rules is one we reported on in ACRASphere two weeks ago: the U.S. Forest Service’s final rule amending its NEPA regulations. We expect there to be additional regulatory moves between now and January that could affect historic preservation and the environmental review process.
Ultimately, it will be up to the incoming Biden administration to decide which Trump administration rules to keep and which to amend. President-elect Biden says that will be a priority of his from day one, along with helping the economy recover from the pandemic. Like all incoming presidents, Biden has a long to-do list. But it is important that the new administration does not neglect the important role that cultural resource management professionals play in protecting our nation’s heritage, ensuring public participation in infrastructure projects, and creating jobs.
That’s why ACRA President Nathan Boyless sent a letter to President-elect Biden last week outlining the organization’s priorities on Sec. 106, NEPA, the economy and other top issues. As Boyless wrote, “CRM professionals across the country are committed to building a better future for all Americans while preserving and protecting the past.”
The right to advocate for our interests before Congress and the President (and the President-elect) is something that we can all celebrate this holiday season, even if the parties are all canceled.