16 Legislative Calendar Days left and …

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The 2015 fiscal year ends on September 30, 2015 and we do not yet have a 2016 budget, a transportation bill, nor a resolution to Veterans Administration shortfalls which may shutter a number of VA hospitals.  And if that isn’t enough on their plates to handle when they only plan to actually work 16 days between now and then, they also need to resolve their issues with the Iran Nuclear Deal.  AND … there are no plans to cancel their August recess.


Iran Nuclear Deal

Last week, the United States along with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China signed a deal with Iran to substantially limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the removal of international sanctions.

Under the framework for an Iran nuclear deal Iran's uranium enrichment pathway to a weapon will be shut down

Under the new nuclear deal, “Iran has committed to extraordinary and robust monitoring, verification, and inspection,” according to the White House. “International inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will not only be continuously monitoring every element of Iran’s declared nuclear program, but they will also be verifying that no fissile material is covertly carted off to a secret location to build a bomb. And if IAEA inspectors become aware of a suspicious location, Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol to their IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which will allow inspectors to access and inspect any site they deem suspicious. Such suspicions can be triggered by holes in the ground that could be uranium mines, intelligence reports, unexplained purchases, or isotope alarms.” (Please take the time to read more here.)

Under the framework for an Iran nuclear deal Iran's uranium enrichment pathway to a weapon will be shut down

Congress must now review the deal—and decide whether to pass a resolution to disapprove the agreement. The entire process could take up to 82 days, and during that time, the President cannot lift sanctions on Iran until the review and voting period is over. The law also requires the Administration to provide detailed reports to Congress every 90 days to ensure that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement.

Here’s how that review process should work, according to legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President in May: The White House delivered the agreement to Congress on Monday—five days after the signing of the Iran deal. Now, Congress has 60 days to review it, or until mid-September. (Keep in mind that Congress will be in recess from August 10 – Sept. 7.)  Congress then has 12 days (by the end of September) to vote on a joint resolution approving or disapproving the deal. Or Congress could opt to do nothing.

If Congress passes a resolution disapproving the deal, the President will most likely veto their disapproval. Congress would then have 10 days to override the veto, which would require a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House. (If Congress were to override a veto, the President would lose his ability to waive sanctions on Iran, which would cause the current agreement to fall through and destroy our nation’s credibility with our negotiating partners.)

Resolution Disapproving the Deal

Congressman Peter Roskam (R-IL), Chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus introduced legislation expressing the sense of the House of Representatives in disapproval of the agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. The resolution is “intended to build support for an expected vote on a formal joint resolution of disapproval in September.”

RESOLUTION DISAPPROVING THE IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT (HRes 367)
  • Sponsor: Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL)  Per Rep. Roskam, this resolution “sets the stage for the 60-day lead up to a vote on this agreement by allowing Members to express their disapproval of the accord. The unprecedented outpouring of support for this resolution proves that Congress will not rubber-stamp a deal that severely threatens the United States and our allies by paving Iran’s path to a bomb.” He went on further to state, “This agreement fails on every level to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran is allowed to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure intact and rewarded an $150 billion cash infusion from sanctions relief. The so-called ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections regime in reality provides Iran nearly a month’s notice on inspections. And, in an unprecedented last-minute concession, the U.N. arms embargo and ban on ballistic missiles will be lifted in just a few short years. This is a bad deal, and it must be stopped,” according to the sponsor. (Read resolution text)

Worth Noting:  Two Representatives from Nevada Mark Amodei and Joe Heck have signed on a co-sponsors of this resolution of disapproval.

Federal Budget and Appropriations

The House has been working on appropriations bills for FY 2016. Thus far, they’ve passed Commerce, Justice and Science (HR 2578); Defense (HR 2685); Energy and Water (HR 2028); Legislative (HR 2250); Military and Veterans (HR 2029); and Transportation and HUD (HR 2577) appropriations bills.  But when they got to the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill (HR 2822) last week, they had to pull it from the floor after a series of amendments were introduced regarding whether the Confederate battle flag should be displayed on public lands. Three amendments, introduced by Democrats, had been passed on July 7th that would block the National Park Service from allowing private groups to decorate graves with Confederate flags specifically in cemeteries in Georgia and Mississippi and would bar the Park Service doing business with gift shops that sell Confederate flag merchandise. Unhappy with those passed amendments, a Republican sponsored amendment was introduced essentially nullifying the passed amendments. To keep from seeing everything degenerate into a total brouhaha over the Confederate Flag, Speaker Boehner pulled the bill from the floor.

Senate Democrats have blocked consideration of appropriations bills until a new budget agreement is negotiated that will mitigate the sequestration budget cuts since 2013. Congress aims to complete the appropriations process by the end of the fiscal year, September 30. If they don’t, then they’ll need to pass a short-term Continuing Resolution to prevent yet another government shutdown.

Meanwhile, the Veterans Administration has put Congress on notice that they have a $2.5B shortfall that if not resolved will force them to start closing some VA hospitals beginning in as early as August.

Highway Trust Fund Extension

Both the Highway Account and the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund are nearing insolvency, according to the Department of Transportation.

As Congressional committees met to discuss ways to keep our country’s Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvent, Secretary Foxx urged them to adopt a long-term transportation bill with increased funding:

“The state of our nation’s infrastructure is not a partisan talking point; it is a problem facing all Americans. So I am encouraged that Members of Congress are asking the tough questions about how we will find solutions together. As I have said many times, we cannot build tomorrow’s transportation system with yesterday’s policy and yesterday’s funding; I look forward to working with both parties to pass a long-term bill that aggressively boosts investment and changes outdated policies so we can build for the future.”

With a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund approaching, cash management steps are not far away.  Because the HTF supports critical roadwork by State DOTs, these cash management procedures will slow improvements and basic repairs on roads across the U.S.   With the Highway Trust Fund authorization set to expire on July 31, the House did pass an extension through December 18. You’re going to love this.  The claim is that the extension would provide $8 billion in new money – $5 billion from tax compliance measures, and $3 billion in reduced spending.  But true to form, it includes no new revenues, and is partly funded by a two-year extension of fees that would have sunsetted (passenger airport security fees collected by the TSA).

HIGHWAY AND TRANSPORTATION FUNDING ACT, PART II (HR 3038)
  • Sponsor: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)  Extends the authorizations of the federal surface transportation programs as well as the hazardous materials transportation program and the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act through Dec. 18, 2015. Funds the surface transportation programs at the level authorized for fiscal year 2014. Would transfer $6.068 billion from the General Fund to the HTF’s Highway Account, and would transfer $2 billion from the General Fund to the HTF’s Mass Transit Account. (Read bill summary.) – Passed by the House; now goes to the Senate —

This is the 34th short-term extension in the last six-years—and many in Congress are urging that they work on a comprehensive long-term bill. In past decades, Congress routinely passed six-year surface transportation bills.  To that end,  other bills have been proposed:

  • GROW America Act (Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act) [HR2410] sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR).  This is the Administration’s long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill. Provides a total of $478 billion over six years, a 45 percent increase for highways, bridges, public transportation, highway safety, and rail programs.
  • The DRIVE Act (Developing a Reliable and innovative Vision for the Economy Act) [S1647]  sponsored by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK).  It’s a 6-yr surface transportation  reauthorization bill sporting a “new” freight program to prioritize federal spending.

Food Labeling and GMOs

Currently, the US Department of Agriculture has no authority over labeling food for the presence or absence of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). This week, House will be voting on a bill mandates a national standard for labeling laws related to GMOs and that would nullify any state standards that might exceed the national minimum standard established by this bill:

Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (HR 1599)
  • Sponsor: Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) In his introduction of the bill, Rep. Pompeo indicated this bill “would establish a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients, giving sole authority to the Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory labeling on such foods if they are ever found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without GM ingredients.” He went on to say that “under SAFLA, the FDA will conduct a safety review of all new plant varieties used for genetically engineered food before those foods are introduced into commerce. This will ensure that consumers get scientifically accurate, and relevant information by allowing the FDA to specify special labeling, if it believes it is necessary to protect health and safety. In order to provide even greater transparency, my legislation includes a provision to allow those who wish to label their products as GMO-free to do so through a USDA-accredited certification process.”

NOTE: The bill, purported by some to have been written by Monsanto, prohibits States from enforcing any bills addressing GMOs that exceed the requirements of HR1599 effectively nullifying existing legislation in a number of states (Maine, Connecticut and Vermont, where foods containing GMOs are required to be labeled).  If passed, the FDA would be the sole authority to require GMO labeling.

Coal Ash Regulations

According to the EPA, “coal combustion residuals are byproducts of the combustion of coal at power plants, and includes fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization (FGD) materials. CCR contain contaminants such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic which are associated with cancer and other serious health effects. When improperly managed, CCR can leak into the groundwater, blow into the air as dust, and be released to surface water and to the land in the event of a catastrophic failure.”

The House has scheduled a vote on HR1734, a bill that would set rules governing the management and disposal of coal ash.

IMPROVING COAL COMBUSTION RESIDUALS REGULATION ACT (HR 1734)
  • Sponsor: Rep. David McKinley (R-WV)   According to the House Majority Leader, this bill will “provide job-creators, and over 300,000 workers, with certainty by putting states in charge of the enforcement to implement the standards set by EPA regarding the safe disposal of coal ash,”  It would authorize States to set up permit programs for coal ash, as well as allow the EPA to offer permits in States that don’t establish their own permit programs.

Really?  (1) Not all States have the funding/expertise/organization to provide for enforcement, and (2) we all know how well that worked in North Carolina when they had a massive coal as spill.  In addition, some Democrats in Congress believe that the bill would undermine tougher coal ash rules the EPA finalized in December 2014, which “establishes the first ever nationally applicable minimum criteria providing for the safe disposal of coal combustion residuals in landfills and surface impoundments.”


That is a seriously overloaded plate and with only 16 legislative days left in this fiscal year, that doesn’t appear to be near enough time for this unproductive Congress to resolve those issues.

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New FAQ’s on Birth Control Coverage

birth-control-pillsThis week the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor, and Treasury issued frequently asked questions (FAQs) to help insurance companies better understand the scope of coverage that is required (including contraceptive care) under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and to help people better the ACA and benefit from it as intended.

This guidance follows recent Kaiser Family Foundation  and research that reported variation in how the ACA contraceptive coverage provisions were being interpreted and implemented by health plans.

Some main points of interest:

  • All non-grandfathered plans and insurers must cover, without cost sharing, at least one form of contraception within each of the 18 methods of contraception that the FDA has identified for women.
  • If an item or service is not covered but is determined medically necessary by the woman’s attending provider, there must be an easily accessible process for the woman to get that item or service;
  • If an insurer covers dependent children, recommended preventive services for women (such as preconception and prenatal care) must be covered for the dependent children as well (i.e., not just the parent(s) on the plan); and

Clarifies that insurance companies may still use reasonable medical management techniques within each of the methods of contraception (there are currently 18 identified by the FDA for women). For example, a plan can discourage the use of brand name over generic pharmacy items through cost sharing.

FDA proposes updates to Nutrition Facts label on food packages

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today proposed to update the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect the latest scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. The proposed label also would replace out-of-date serving sizes to better align with how much people really eat, and it would feature a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

Proposed“For 20 years consumers have come to rely on the iconic nutrition label to help them make healthier food choices,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “To remain relevant, the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.”

Some of the changes to the label the FDA proposed today would:

  • Require information about the amount of “added sugars” in a food product. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that intake of added sugar is too high in the U.S. population and should be reduced. The FDA proposes to include “added sugars” on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.
  • Update serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat. What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put in place in 1994. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people “should” be eating. Present calorie and nutrition information for the whole package of certain food products that could be consumed in one sitting.
  • Present “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D, nutrients that some in the U.S. population are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure. Vitamins A and C would no longer be required on the label, though manufacturers could declare them voluntarily.
  • Revise the Daily Values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D. Daily Values are used to calculate the Percent Daily Value on the label, which helps consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “TransFat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value, which are important in addressing current public health problems like obesity and heart disease.

CurrentThe proposed updates reflect new dietary recommendations, consensus reports, and national survey data, such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrient intake recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, and intake data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The FDA also considered extensive input and comments from a wide range of stakeholders.

“By revamping the Nutrition Facts label, FDA wants to make it easier than ever for consumers to make better informed food choices that will support a healthy diet.” said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “To help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes.”

The Nutrition Facts label has been required on food packages for 20 years, helping consumers better understand the nutritional value of foods so they can make healthy choices for themselves and their families. The label has not changed significantly since 2006 when information on trans fat had to be declared on the label, prompting manufacturers to reduce partially hydrogenated oils, the main source oftrans fat, in many of their products.

The changes proposed today affect all packaged foods except certain meat, poultry and processed egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The FDA is also proposing to make corresponding updates to the Supplement Facts label on dietary supplements where applicable.

The agency is accepting public comment on the proposed changes for 90 days.

For more information:

The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.

Don’t Put a Fork in It

Despite consumer opposition, the FDA is one step away from approving genetically engineered salmon.

By Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter

While most Americans were enjoying the holiday season or stressing out over the nation’s imminent leap off the so-called fiscal cliff, the Food and Drug Administration delivered some big news as quietly as possible.

On December 21, the agency announced that AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon had cleared the final hurdle before clinching FDA approval.

Despite insufficient testing and widespread consumer opposition, AquaBounty’s food experiment is dangerously close to becoming the first genetically engineered animal produced for human consumption. Yes, a newfangled fish may soon land on a dinner plate near you.

For those who have been following this news for the past several years, the timing of the FDA’s release of its draft environmental assessment — the Friday before Christmas — was no surprise. But the news was still frightening: The FDA may give this transgenic animal the green light under a new approval process that treats the fish as an “animal drug.”

Prefer your salmon without those eel genes spliced into its DNA? Pay close attention because this frankenfish may hit the market without any sort of label.

It seems that AquaBounty and the FDA don’t believe consumers deserve the right to know whether the fish we eat is genetically engineered. Those who have demanded labeling for genetically engineered food will be unable to identify this transgenic salmon from standard farm-raised varieties.

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Not only does this ignore our fundamental right to know what we are putting on our plates, it’s also a bad business decision. It’s entirely possible that many Americans will avoid purchasing any salmon for fear it is genetically engineered.

AquaBounty, the biotech company responsible for bringing us this fishy salmon, used its own data to convince the FDA that it is safe to eat. But AquaBounty’s profits are inextricably linked to approval of this salmon. It’s outrageous that the FDA would take AquaBounty’s word over that of dozens of lawmakers and scientists, including experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service, not to mention thousands of concerned consumers.

The FDA has the difficult task of protecting consumer safety, but it’s hard to take it seriously when it comes to genetically engineered salmon. So far, they’ve failed to conduct the appropriate studies to determine if the fish is safe to eat. Independent scientists have skewered the FDA’s process, noting that serious environmental concerns have not been examined while food safety issues related to hormone levels and allergies have been glossed over.

Even AquaBounty’s claim of faster growth rates is suspect. The company hasn’t yet demonstrated that its transgenic salmon can grow faster than salmon without its new traits. And that’s the whole reason they say it should be approved. SalmoBreed AS, a Norwegian company specializing in the selective breeding of Atlantic salmon, has directly challenged AquaBounty on this point.

By releasing an environmental assessment instead of a more thorough environmental impact statement, the FDA has failed to fully consider the threat this controversial new fish could pose to wild fish populations.

While the FDA is close to approving genetically engineered salmon for consumers, Congress can still keep them from unleashing this dangerous experiment. Consumers don’t have million-dollar accounts with K Street lobbyists, but we do have a powerful voice of opposition, one that has effectively put the brakes on this untested laboratory experiment for more than two years. Members of Congress are speaking out against this controversial fish. Let your elected officials know you don’t want this frankenfish on your plate. Visit Foodandwaterwatch.org to find out how.


Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch. www.foodandwaterwatch.org Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

With the Anti-Occupy Law Now in Play, How Will This Protest End for Protesters?

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 15, 2012

GCU Media Liaison: Adam Eidinger 202-744-2671
GMO@occupy-monsanto.com

Occupy-Monsanto to Wear Bio-Hazmat Suits as they
Protest a Genetically Modified Congress

WASHINGTON DC – On Friday, March 16, 2012, Occupy Monsanto’s agents of change with the Genetic Crimes Unit (GCU), a group designed to protect America from genetically modified foods, will wear bio-hazmat suits when they visit Congress. The group will gather at Capitol South Metro station at noon on March 16 to highlight how chemical company Monsanto is contaminating our political process. The GCU opposes Monsanto’s bid to increase spraying of food with toxic weed killers like 2,4 D (the main ingredient in Agent Orange), genetic contamination of the organic food supply, and other risks associated with genetically modified food (GMOs).

The GCU will arrive at the metro station wearing bio-hazmat suits to assess whether Members of Congress and their staff have been victims of genetic crimes. The GCU will hold a banner that reads, “Congress is Genetically Modified,” as they circulate on Capitol Hill sidewalks. This day of action is part of a larger international call to ‘Occupy Monsanto’ taking place all over the globe including Spain, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and at least 28 cities throughout the US.

“In the name of Wall Street profits, chemical corporations such as Monsanto genetically engineer crops to withstand high doses of their toxic weed killers that contaminate our food and water, and have not been proven safe. We deserve to know what we are eating. Virtually every major country requires labeling of GMOs in foods so their citizens can make informed choices, including all of Europe, Japan and even China,” said GCU’s Ariel Vegosen. “Monsanto’s lobbying dollars are pouring into politicians so its clear we have a GMO contaminated US Congress that threatens our health and the health of the planet,” says Vegosen.

WHO: Occupy Monsanto’s Genetic Crimes Unit (GCU)
WHAT: ID’ing Victims of Monsanto’s Genetic Crimes by GCU Agents in Bio-Hazmat Suits
WHEN: Friday, March 16, Noon
WHERE: Cannon Building: Independence Ave. SE, Washington, DC, 20540, corner NJ Ave

Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has introduced three bills addressing concerns with GMOs. In addition, more than 900,000 people have signed onto the JustLabelit.org citizens’ petition to the Food and Drug Administration for GMO labeling (the most to sign an FDA petition ever). Last fall about 100 people marched in the Right2Know March from New York to the White House to demand President Obama keep his campaign promise to label GMO foods. Video of the promise can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqaaB6NE1TI In California Monsanto faces a 2012 ballot proposition on GMO labeling. Finally, on September 17, 2012 Occupy Monsanto is calling for hundreds of actions internationally, www.occupy-monsanto.com