Though plenty of people outside of the Beltway think of the 114th U.S. Congress as a “do-nothing Congress” (not to be confused with the actual Do-Nothing Congress, which in fact passed 906 bills into law from 1947-49, in spite of what President Harry Truman had to say), lawmakers did actually manage to get a few things done in 2015 — much of it to the pleasure of the plastics industry and almost all of it at the last minute.
That said, there is plenty left to do before Congress adjourns. And since 2016 is an election year, with races back home and the added distraction of the presidential primaries, members have even less time than usual to get it all done.
In 2015 — barely — the House and Senate did come to an agreement to ban plastic microbeads from all rinse-off cosmetics and toothpastes made or sold in the United States by July 2019 (PL 114-114). Even the plastics industry was behind the ban after studies showed the 5-millimeter or smaller polyethylene bits, billed by cosmetics companies as gentle exfoliators, slide straight through municipal water treatment facilities and directly into waterways.
But the bill didn't include provisions for “leave-on” cosmetic products or household cleaners, which could prompt a second round of microbead legislation in the coming months to close possible loopholes.
Taxing and spending
For the first time in six years, the House and Senate did manage to get all 12 appropriations bills out of their respective committees. With the clock ticking on the end of the year, they didn't get passed individually. Instead they were rolled into a massive spending and tax incentive package that was passed instead (PL 114-113).
Lawmakers didn't give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the amount of money the Obama Administration requested, shorting EPA by about $500 million with the intent of “reining in” the agency and preventing it from “operating outside its mission,” according to Congressional Republicans.
The tax incentives did include a pile of provisions the plastics industry, and small business owners in general, can crow about. It includes a two-year temporary repeal on the 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices that went into effect with the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, in January 2013.
After 15 extensions since it was first introduced in 1981, the new law makes permanent and expands the R&D Tax Credit, so plastics processors with less than $50 million in gross receipts can now claim the credit against their Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and the credit is now opened up to start-ups, allowing businesses with gross receipts of less than $5 million per year to take the credit up to $250,000 against their payroll taxes up to five years on any research or supply costs while working toward innovation.
Also made permanent? Small businesses can breathe easy with permission to expense up to $500,000 in capital expenditures per year. FYI: for the plastics industry, the federal government considers any resin maker with fewer than 750 employees a “small business.” For plastics manufacturing and mold makers, it's fewer than 500 people but for plastics products wholesalers, any more than 100 employees and you're not small enough for the feds.
One big, last-minute surprise from the Senate was to squeeze in floor passage of a bill that would update a decades-old law regulating chemical manufacture, transportation and use. So after a long, bumpy road, both the House (HR 2576) and the Senate (S 697) did manage to pass their own overhauls of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Even Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) eventually got on board to allow the Dec. 17 voice vote, saying in a statement that the bill has “vastly improved over the original bill” and that she will be “intimately involved,” presumably fending off attempts to pre-empt existing state chemical regulations with a new federal law.
But the late-in-the-game approval from the Senate means they didn't even get started on reconciling the two very different bills (the House version being just over 200 pages and the Senate version about 350, just for starters). Conference committee deliberations are expected to kick off the week of Jan. 11.
Finally, one bill that didn't make it through the Senate — or even make it onto most folks' radar — in 2015 is expected to get a lot of attention in the coming year and could have a serious impact on the medical device market. The 21st Century Cures Act, passed by the House (HR 6) in July and still sitting in committee in the Senate, would make it significantly faster and easier for medical devices to get to market. But consumer groups are in an uproar after reports that lobbyists, specifically device trade group AdvaMed, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration worked even more closely than is usually acceptable to craft the bill together.
At least the debate won't be boring.