Taxpayer's Tab: H.R. 4239, a bill to provide drought assistance to the State of California and other affected western States

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Welcome to the new & improved Taxpayer’s Tab!

The Tab presents the latest research from the National Taxpayers Union Foundation’s (NTUF) BillTally project -- the most comprehensive study of Congressional spending proposals. Each week, NTUF experts bring you commentary and analysis of the bottom line costs of legislation in the House and Senate.

For more information, check out NTUF’s BillTally project and our partners, capitol_dome_tiny and

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 Most Expensive Bill of the Week

The Bill: H.R. 4239, a bill to provide drought assistance to the State of California and other affected western States

Cost Per Year: $153 million ($460 million over three years)

Congressman Jared Huffman(D-CA)California’s ongoing drought has brought hardship and harsh conditions to nearly the entire state. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, almost 72 percent of the Golden State is under a “severe drought” designation and a further 22 percent is experiencing “exceptional” drought. Three consecutive years of below-average rainfall have taken their toll on reservoir water levels and have prompted Governor Jerry Brown to urge Californians to reduce their water usage wherever possible; some have even floated the idea of a mandatory rationing system if conditions do not improve.

What’s more, the drought, no doubt worsened by the diversion of river water to protect the endangered Delta smelt fish, has disrupted California’s agricultural output, putting a strain on consumers across the country who depend on the state’s normally robust output of crops like lettuce, strawberries, almonds, and grapes. In fact, over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its nuts and fruits came from California in 2012. This has many in the agricultural industry concerned that food prices, particularly among crops produced mostly or exclusively in California, could continue to rise for some time to come.

In response, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA)* recently introduced H.R. 4239, which would provide $475 million in emergency funding to assist with water management projects, agricultural recovery, and water conservation. The legislation was modeled after a similar smaller-scale bill introduced in the Senate by Californian Senator Diane Feinstein (D).

The bill would authorize emergency appropriations for several existing federal programs that can assist with regional drought and agricultural disaster relief, including:

  • $5 million for rural water supply projects;
  • $25 million in federal funding to nonprofit institutions that help seasonal workers affected by the drought;
  • $25 million for water system infrastructure upgrades.
  • $50 million for fire risk mitigation & water quality projects through the Land and Water Conservation Fund; and
  • At least $150 million for water conservation projects funded by the Bureau of Reclamation

As the Congressional Research Service reported, most drought relief programs are administered at the state and local level. Under current law, the President may issue emergency drought declarations under the Stafford Act, at a state’s Governor’s request, in order to expedite federal assistance. However, those requests are usually denied. Rep. Huffman’s bill would amend the Stafford Act in order to make it easier for states to receive federal assistance for drought relief.

According to Rep. Huffman’s office, the bill provides $473 million in emergency drought relief funding. The legislation also includes an additional $2 million for oversight by the USDA Office of Inspector General. NTUF assumes that the bulk of the funding would actually be spent over the next three years. There are no offsets to the new spending included in the bill, thus it would be in addition to current spending. capitol_dome_tinytaxtabhaticonalpha.png

* NTUF does not have a BillTally report for Congressman Huffman because he is a freshman Representative.

The Bottom Line: H.R. 4239 would allocate more tax dollars to assist for water infrastructure, conservation, and employment in California and other drought-afflicted western states. With no offsets, the bill would increase spending by $450 million over three years.


Least Expensive Bill of the Week

The Bill: H.R. 4257, a bill to provide for a limitation on the number of civilian employees at the Department of Defense, and for other purposes

Savings Per Year: $16.5 billion ($82.5 billion over five years)

Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA)

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office reported that the federal civilian workforce (excluding postal workers) grew by 14 percent, or 258,882 employees, between 2004 and 2012. Three agencies alone -- the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs -- accounted for 94 percent of that growth. At the same time, compensation for full-time civilian employees grew by about 1.2 percent per year. Combined, these factors mean that personnel costs are making up an increasingly large portion of the federal budget: in FY 2012, it represented 26 percent of total discretionary expenditures.

The growth within the defense sector has been particularly rapid. There are now about 770,000 civilian defense employees, a workforce that grew by 17 percent between 2001 and 2012. That is over five times faster than the military itself, which increased in size by about 3.4 percent over the same period.

In the wake of automatic budget cuts, lawmakers and government officials have debated over how many civilian employees are needed to maintain an effective U.S. defense strategy. The Pentagon recently announced plans to reduce the civilian defense workforce by five percent over the next five years, among other reductions in active duty soldiers.

Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA) has proposed going a step further and reducing the civilian defense workforce by 15 percent by 2020. He recently introduced H.R. 4257 to do just that, citing budgetary savings and a more effective, efficient civilian defense workforce as primary goals. Additionally, the bill would require DoD to maintain the smaller workforce until at least 2025, and issue reports to Congress on how the reductions affect military capabilities and performance.

In a press release, Rep. Calvert said “[m]any of our civilians at the Pentagon and around the world do a fine job but their growth is unsustainable. Our current and retired military leaders have widely acknowledged the need to establish a more efficient defense workforce in order to preserve our national security posture in the future.”

Rep. Calvert’s office estimated that a 15 percent civilian workforce reduction would yield about $82.5 billion in savings over the next five years. That figure comes from an estimate by former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, who recently projected that a 7,000 civilian employee reduction would lead to $5 billion in savings over five years. A 15 percent reduction in the current 770,000-person defense workforce, then, represents about $16.5 billion in savings per year. That is about three percent of the President’s $496 billion Pentagon budget request for Fiscal Year 2015. capitol_dome_tinytaxtabhaticonalpha.png

The Bottom Line: H.R. 4257 would reduce the civilian workforce in the Department of Defense by 15 percent. The bill would reduce federal spending by $82.5 billion over five years.


  The Wildcard  

The Bill: H.R. 4243, a bill to amend title 40, United States Code, to permit commercial filmmaking and photography on the United States Capitol grounds, and for other purposes

Cost Per Year: “No Cost” -- Regulation

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)House of Cards; Lincoln; Veep – these are just a few examples of popular films and broadcast series that are set in Washington, D.C., but are actually filmed and produced somewhere else (in these three cases: Baltimore, Maryland). The District is home to unmistakable and iconic architecture such as the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol Rotunda; so why are filmmakers looking for a change of scenery? The answer lies in the complex regulatory and tax environment surrounding commercial filming in D.C.

Under current law, commercial filming on certain parts of the Capitol grounds is prohibited, and doing so elsewhere requires navigating a series of regulatory and permitting processes set up by the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Producers looking to film in certain parts of the Federal City have to obtain a permit from the National Park Service, Capitol Police, or whatever other agency owns the land in question. Even after permits are obtained, each site often has different rules regarding where, specifically, cameras are allowed to film.

On the other side of the red tape deterrent, there are also tax incentives for production offices to consider. Cities like Baltimore have lured shows such as House of Cards and Veep with millions of dollars in tax breaks. While the economic benefit to the city and state from doing so may be questionable, the money is hard for producers to pass up, especially as digital effects technology improves and makes it possible to alter a scene so it looks “close enough” to the real thing.

In order to encourage filmmakers to come to D.C. to film scenes in their actual setting, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced H.R. 4243. Her bill would lift the restrictions on commercial filming on Capitol grounds and allow filmmakers to shoot scenes on any portion of the property. The legislation allows the U.S. Capitol Police to charge fees to offset any costs incurred.

Del. Norton said “My bill would enable appropriate, permitted commercial filming and photography of the Capitol, and would create economic benefits for the nation, the city, and private business.”

NTUF does not anticipate the bill to require any additional funding, since it is largely regulatory in nature.

The Bottom Line: H.R. 4243 would permit more film to be shot in the District of Columbia and would likely not change current federal spending.