In a legislative body in which federal lawmakers can expect to get maybe one bill passed through the full Congress and signed by the president every two years, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers counts six in her “win” column.
Many of those pieces of legislation were proposals that were tucked into larger bills, demonstrating the influence of the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives on the lawmaking process. Two bills dealing with savings accounts for families of children with disabilities were part of the much larger GOP tax reform legislation that passed last December, and built upon earlier legislation passed in a previous Congress. The preservation of on-the-ground weather observers at Spokane International Airport, a decision that federal regulators agreed was necessary to ensure passenger safety, was part of a complete reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration’s activities through 2023.
Here’s a more detailed look at some of the legislation McMorris Rodgers has seen signed into law by President Donald Trump in this Congress, and how it came about.
Working with Gleasons on speech-assistance devices
In 2015, those in charge of determining what services Medicare would cover made a change in the way they were evaluating devices that allowed those with degenerative neural conditions to communicate.
The change would have meant that Medicare would not have paid for personal speech devices in instances where a beneficiary became hospitalized, or taken to inpatient treatment care. The concern from Medicare decision-makers was that the program might be forced to cover devices that went beyond communication, including devices that would allow surfing the internet, said Tim Nanof, director of health care policy and education at the Maryland-based American Speech Language Hearing Association, one of the trade and advocacy associations that lobbied against the change.
“The devices were accessing the web in order to update their software, and to get rid of their vulnerabilities and stuff like that,” Nanof said.
The change compelled Steve Gleason, the former WSU and NFL standout, to contact Congress with concerns. Gleason, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, uses a speech-assisted device to communicate.
A bill sponsored by McMorris Rodgers passed in 2015 without a single negative vote in Congress allowed for Medicare to provide lump-sum dollars to cover the purchase of devices, which prevented patients from losing access to their devices when they were admitted to the hospital or other inpatient care provider, Nanof said. According to the organization, roughly 3,000 patients nationwide were using Medicare to cover their devices in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available.
“It is a relatively low volume, compared to a lot of Medicare things,” Nanof said. (Medicare covers health care for roughly 60 million people in the United States.) “Many people who are needing this have neurodegenerative diseases where their life expectancy isn’t as long as it is for other conditions.”
The original legislation extended the Medicare change through October 2018. In February, Congress made the program permanent as part of the federal government spending bill.
Port of Whitman future expansion
McMorris Rodgers’ most recent bill signed into law will allow the Port of Whitman County to explore growing its boundaries onto property owned by the federal government.
Formed 60 years ago, the Port of Whitman County is one of 75 such industrial centers statewide. Its commissioners are eyeing a parcel of property north of their Port of Central Ferry location on the Snake River, about 65 miles northeast of Walla Walla.
“We’re 100 percent tapped out,” said Joe Poire, executive director of the Port of Whitman County.
The swath of land the port is interested in comprises 564 acres of upland wildlife habitat area owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on Tuesday enables talks to begin between the federal agency and the port on a potential future land swap, which would require appraisal of the land and an offering by the port district of property to replace the existing wildlife habitat.
That process would likely take close to a generation, based on past land-swapping with the federal agency, said Debbie Snell, properties and development manager for the port. It also would require significant public comment before any transfer could occur.
“This is a win for the port, and a huge lift from the congresswoman’s office for this process to begin,” Snell said.
The district’s most recent economic impact analysis, conducted by researchers at the University of Idaho in 2011, found that the port generated nearly $900 million in annual sales and supported nearly 2,500 jobs.
Allowing those with disabilities to save for the future
To receive certain federal government assistance, including Social Security benefits, applicants must prove they own less than $2,000 in assets.
For those with permanent disabilities who rely on such assistance throughout their lives, the system created what Peter Tassoni, the state’s disability workgroup manager, said was a pressure to forgo savings.
“We basically force them into a state of poverty,” Tassoni said.
McMorris Rodgers was an early co-sponsor of original legislation in the House of Representatives that created new, tax-free savings accounts for those with eligible disabilities that was signed into law in 2014. Known as ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) accounts, any amount up to $15,000 that was deposited in them wouldn’t count against the $2,000 threshold to continue to receive assistance.
One of those eligible disabilities for an ABLE account is Down syndrome, a condition that McMorris Rodgers’ son, Cole, was born with in 2007.
McMorris Rodgers’ work promoting the legislation, and on other issues facing those with disabilities, was praised by her opponent, Lisa Brown, at a recent debate in Spokane.
Washington state had to enact enabling legislation that allowed the accounts to be accessed by its residents. It did so in the most recent session, with the system – part of a consortium with Oregon and other states – going live on July 23, Tassoni said.
So far, 102 people have enrolled in Washington state and placed nearly $200,000 in their accounts, according to the most recent numbers from the state’s Department of Commerce. Tassoni said national survey data showed that between 30,000 and 50,000 Washington residents would be both eligible to set up an account, which is managed by the financial services firm BNY Mellon, and have adequate resources to begin saving. The goal is to sign up 1,000 people a year over the next decade, Tassoni said.
While the state launched its program, McMorris Rodgers was able to pass two additional measures in the 2017 tax reform bill that raised the amount of income that could be placed in an ABLE account for an eligible person earning a salary or royalties up to the federal poverty level, which is about $12,000, and to roll over amounts deposited into a college savings account without a tax penalty. Tassoni said these measures effectively created a new stream of retirement savings for those experiencing long-term disabilities and gave parents flexibility in determining how to save for their children.
“You’re adding a sense of security to the family members, because their loved ones might outlive them,” Tassoni said.
Keeping weather observers
on the ground at the airport
If you’ve taken a flight at Spokane International Airport any time in the winter months, you know the weather can change in an instant.
That’s what prompted the team of contract weather observers at the regional transportation hub, a group currently seven strong, to lobby the Federal Aviation Administration from cutting the program that puts humans on the ground around-the-clock in case of system failure.
“It can’t see a tornado coming,” said Dave Law, weather observation supervisor at the airport, of the facility’s automated systems. “It can’t see, perhaps, if rain is moving into the area, and temperatures are dropping below freezing.”
Federal law passed in 2016 directed the FAA to examine whether it should eliminate the observation program at 57 airports nationwide. The federal government anticipated saving roughly $50 million as a result of the reductions, in an operating budget of more than $9 billion.
McMorris Rodgers authored a portion of the federal authorization bill for the agency that would prevent any reduction of the service through 2023. Law said the program is still dependent upon appropriations from Congress to pay their salary every year, but workers – who formed a trade association in the midst of the requests to reduce their numbers – are “feeling pretty safe.”
“You have to draw a line, if you’re reducing services to the point where you are actually creating a safety gap,” Law said. “All it takes is one plane leaving a runway.”
for medical students
Spokane’s Teaching Health Clinic on the WSU Riverpoint Campus provides 18 residency slots for graduate medical students. The program is dependent in part on federal funding to help defray the costs of training those students, which can reach into the six-figure range, and is also supported by several private entities and nonprofits.
The program was created as part of the Affordable Care Act, a law McMorris Rodgers has voted to repeal in whole or in part dozens of times. However, she’s made legislative efforts to save the teaching health center program, which she says is vital to supply doctors for rural areas of Washington.
McMorris Rodgers originally pushed for a three-year extension of funding in a standalone bill. It was instead included as a two-year extension, as part of the same February spending bill that included the permanent Medicare provision for the speech devices.
The amount of funding was double what it had been in previous years, but that doesn’t mean the number of doctors trained will increase as well, WSU officials said this summer.