Congress 2012: Welcome to the Land of Confusion

When I was originally asked to write on the 2012 political environment, one of my colleagues suggested I write a one-word column: “Confusion.” While being a bit glib, that’s not a bad way to start off.

Foretelling the future can be a difficult thing, especially for 2012. National elections always turn out different than they look the preceding December. Anybody remember the predictions of the cross-New York, Hillary-Rudy campaign of 2008 or Democratic presidential nominee Howard Dean in 2004?

In addition, the past two elections demonstrated that the electorate is fed up with the current system and is looking for outsiders who promise they can fix the system.

So, a lot of the wiser sages around town say the political environment is “fluid” and “evolving.” However, that’s kind of a cop out, so let me give you some thoughts to consider as we fasten our seatbelts and get ready for the turbulent year that’s shaping up to be 2012.

The Federal Budget Will Get Cut

America’s policymakers are all focused on Europe, where the phrase “too big to fail” describes countries, not banks. European economies are under tremendous pressure from the combination of large deficits, aging populations and stagnating economies. It’s clear to both Republicans and Democrats that America must get its budget under control to prevent economic disaster.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 is the first step towards reducing the deficit. It created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction and told the 12 members from the House and Senate they must find $1.5 trillion in savings between fiscal years 2012 and 2021. Since the committee was unable to come to an agreement, a mandatory cut of $1.2 trillion to all federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, will go into effect in January 2013.

In many cases, our programs are already being cut. Congress eliminated the funding for the Interoperable Communications Grants earlier this year as part of the bill that funded the government for FY 2011. Overall, homeland security grants have been savaged:  In FY 2010, the State Homeland Security Program was funded at $950 million and the Urban Areas Security Initiative grants received $887 million. For FY 2012, the House would create a $1 billion pool to fund these and other grant programs and the Senate appropriators only proposed $430 million for SHSP and $400 million for UASI.

Even the FIRE and SAFER grants are being cut. They received $405 million each in FY 2011. For FY 2012, the House passed legislation funding the programs at $335 million each, and the Senate appropriators were slightly more generous by funding the programs at $375 million each.

We can expect continued efforts to cut our programs through the next few years. The recession that gutted many local budgets years ago has finally caught up to D.C. From an operational perspective, this means there will be less federal funding for America’s fire departments and fire chiefs will have to be more aggressive in applying for funding in existing grant programs.

From a political perspective, the IAFC will work harder to demonstrate the effectiveness of our programs. The IAFC will work with you to identify how federal funding has been used wisely to improve the nation’s emergency-response capabilities. It always helps to visit your member of Congress, their staff and FEMA-regional staff to explain how taxpayers’ money has improved the safety in your neighborhoods. As federal dollars dwindle, the competition for each dollar increases exponentially.

A Public-Safety Broadband Network Will Start to Become a Reality

Over the past few years, the IAFC has been the leading fire service organization in the effort to establish a nationwide, wireless broadband network for public safety. There is bipartisan support for the idea in Congress and the president even mentioned the concept in his State of the Union address.

There is general agreement that the federal government should help pay for some of the construction, operation and maintenance of the network. In addition, there are a number of proposals that would create a governance structure to oversee the effort.

The big question will be what happens to the D Block. There are bills in both the House and Senate to allocate the D Block to public safety. The easiest way to raise funds is to sell spectrum, because it’s very valuable and doesn’t have the PR problems of selling federal land or dropping oil wells next to beaches and wildlife preserves. The D Block is estimated to be worth $2.75 billion. So, there remains a lot of pressure in Congress to sell the D Block to a commercial bidder and use the funds for deficit reduction or the build-out of the public-safety network.

If the D Block is auctioned, public safety will have to work with the winning bidder to build a 20 MHz network using the 10 MHz that we have and the 10 MHz that the bidder won. The commercial provider will have significant control over access and priority. So during an emergency, it will be much harder to ensure public safety’s communications go through, and it will be much harder to ensure the system is as resilient as public safety requires.

It remains important that IAFC members continue to contact their members of Congress about allocating the D Block to public safety. This really is a one-shot opportunity.

There Will Be a Major Transportation Bill

The House and Senate have begun considering major legislation to reauthorize funding for the nation’s highway system. Speaker Boehner has identified the passage of the House bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, as “significant job legislation.” In the Senate, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act to authorize funding for the nation’s highway system.

This legislation will be important to the fire service because it also authorizes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation. The IAFC has made a number of recommendations to improve the firefighter training for hazmat response that this agency does. In addition, there may be provisions to improve traffic safety and incident management. The IAFC is actively engaged in the drafting of this legislation.

These are some of the major issues I expect for the upcoming year. However, there are opportunities for action in other areas too. For example, the recent debate about the deficit has spurred a lot of conversation about reforming the federal tax code, which could end up affecting the tax treatment of volunteer firefighters. However, we’ll have to wait to see if those discussions get tangled in election-year politics.

As a presidential election year, with Congress already stuck in partisan gridlock, 2012 should be a turbulent year. The IAFC will keep fighting for you on Capitol Hill and keep you informed about what happens.

Ken LaSala is the IAFC’s director of government relations and policy.

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