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Democrats target $4.5 billion for heating assistance

Biden wants infusion into HHS program to help offset utility costs

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., left, and Don Mathis of Community Action Partnership at a 2012 news conference at the Capitol on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., left, and Don Mathis of Community Action Partnership at a 2012 news conference at the Capitol on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee included in their portion of the emerging pandemic relief bill billions of dollars for a low-income energy program, funding for EPA grants and money for drinking water and wastewater expenses.

A draft of the Energy and Commerce recommendations will be put through a full markup Thursday as Congress grapples to assemble the $1.9 trillion relief bill, President Joe Biden’s first legislative goal.

That draft, responding to budget instructions from Democrats in Congress, includes $4.5 billion for an energy assistance program that would go to the Department of Health and Human Services for low-income households to pay energy expenses such as power bills.

The House Education and Labor Committee advanced a draft Wednesday morning that also included $4.5 billion in funding for the energy program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is known as LIHEAP.

Elysa Montfort, a spokesperson for Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the funding for LIHEAP between the two committees is the same provision, not $9 billion total.

Separately, the provision in the Energy and Commerce bill includes $500 million for HHS to help “low income and other consumers adversely affected financially by COVID-19” with drinking water and wastewater costs, according to a summary by committee Democrats. It also includes $50 million for environmental justice work at the EPA and another $50 million for the agency to monitor air pollution.

The allocations are broadly in line with what Biden proposed as president-elect. He called for $30 billion in rental assistance, with $5 billion carved out for LIHEAP.

Since local utility rates are generally the same for all customers, utility bills make up a disproportionate part of low-income households’ expenses. While electric and water bills account for about 3.1 percent of the net income of the average American household, they account for about 20 percent on average of the net income of Americans in the lowest income decile, according to Carlos Martín of the Urban Institute.

Forty-four Senate Democrats and independents wrote Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Feb. 1 calling for a boost to LIHEAP funding.

“State energy officials have reported that they are ready to move additional LIHEAP funds quickly and have identified a need for an additional $10 billion to serve 11 million families, including newly-eligible households,” the senators wrote in a letter.

Congress provided $900 million through one pandemic relief package in the spring of 2020.

That money has been obligated, the senators wrote, citing figures from the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association that an estimated 15 to 20 percent of residential customers are 60 days or more behind on their electric and natural gas invoices.

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