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Legislative Updates

Keeping you up to date on policy action from the presidential administration and the U.S. Congress.

September 2013

Download PDF: September 2013
“Congress Gears Up for Potential Federal Shutdown”
Before leaving for August recess, Congressional leaders began preparing for another spending standoff in September when the current federal funding authorization expires. The federal government has been operating off of a series of continuing resolutions (CRs) that are in place to keep the federal government funded until final budget decisions are made. Despite the temporary nature of CRs, the federal government has continuously used these spending measures since 2010.

Several Republicans in Congress have indicated that they will oppose any CR extension that includes funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), further complicating budget talks. Several House bills and amendments have been pushed through to reinforce party opposition of the bill, including an amendment to require Congress to approve all ACA rules and a measure to prevent the IRS from implementing the ACA. These measures are not expected to be picked up by the Senate.

Despite the current political stalemate, observers are optimistic that lawmakers still have time to reach some sort of spending deal.

» Law, Justice, and Ethics

“Attorney General Holder’s Charge to Reduce Mandatory Minimums”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) will now push to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing. In a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder remarked, “Certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” Attorney General Holder also announced a potential decrease of the federal prison population by releasing elderly prisoners who have served most of their sentences, did not commit violent crimes, and do not pose a threat to the public. Additionally, the DOJ has begun work with the Department of Education to address the school-to-prison pipeline and zero-tolerance school policies.

To promote the DOJ’s new direction, Attorney General Holder and his aides will travel the country speaking on sentencing reform and alternative programming for nonviolence offenders.

“Congressional Black Caucus Proposes Voting Rights Act Recommendations”
A Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) task force submitted a list of recommendations to House Democratic leaders to amend the current Voting Rights Act. The list was created to suggest legislative changes that address the needs of voters following recent Supreme Court’s decisions. The CBC proposes the following:

  • Amending Section 2 to make it easier for judges to grant temporary injunctions against jurisdictions with allegations of discriminatory practices. (The CBC’s recommendation would require plaintiffs to show they have been harmed by the rules without having to demonstrate they would likely win the case against the jurisdiction);
  • Amending Section 3 to eliminate the burden of finding a discriminatory intent and allow judges to use oversight in states where the laws have had a discriminatory effect. (This new provision is currently being used by Attorney General Holder in a contentious Texas case);
  • Updating the formula in Section 4 to include jurisdictions that have been found in violation of Section 2 or Section 5 since 2000, or have entered into a settlement or consent agreement based on a discrimination complaint since 2000; and
  • Amending Section 5 to allow states not included in preclearance requirements (under Section 4) to opt into federal protections (such as election monitoring) if racial discrimination is proven to occur at the polls.

“Department of Defense and Social Security Administration to Begin Processing Same-Sex Benefits”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced plans to extend benefits to same-sex spouses. DOD will make spousal and family benefits available to all uniformed service members with the provision of a valid marriage certificate. Benefits will also be applied retroactively from the date of the ruling and will be available for service members married after the date of the ruling. The SSA will begin developing and implementing policy and procedures that allow for same-sex spouses to start receiving benefits as well.

“Department of Justice files suit to block merger between U.S. Airways and American Airlines”
DOJ, along with Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia, have filed a suit against U.S. Airways and American Airlines blocking their potential merger, arguing it would violate federal antitrust laws. Combining the two would create the largest airline in the U.S. The DOJ contends that decreased competition between airlines and airports would result in higher taxes and fees for consumers. American Airlines entered the merger after beginning bankruptcy proceedings. Spokespeople from both carriers have expressed confidence in the merger and are preparing a heavy defense.

» Business, Financial Services, and Insurance

“President Offers Grand Jobs Bargain to Congress”
On July 30, President Obama announced a proposal for a series of corporate tax cuts in exchange for investments in job training, manufacturing, and infrastructure. The compromise is a shift from President Obama’s previous comments on corporate tax revisions as a part of a larger overhaul of the tax code.

On the tax side, President Obama proposed to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%, with additional tax incentives for small businesses and manufacturers. The President also sought to remove tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs overseas, and to establish a minimum corporate tax on foreign earnings. In regards to job creation, the President proposed immediate infrastructure investments to repair roads and bridges, and establish a National Infrastructure Bank to leverage public and private funds for infrastructure funding. A new bond program, “America Fast Forward,” was suggested as well to assist school construction projects.

Lastly, the President announced his goal to improve American manufacturing by creating a national network of institutes to support manufacturing research and innovation, and a “Community College to Career Fund” to better link two-year college programs with the needs of employers.

» Housing

“Former Black State Legislator Faces Uncertain Path to Senate FHFA Confirmation”
U.S. Congressman Melvin Watt’s (D-NC) nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has faced tough Congressional opposition. On July 18, Rep. Watt’s confirmation passed out of the Senate Banking Committee on a strict party line vote and President Obama and Senate Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempts to confirm the Congressman in the full body before the Senate’s annual August recess.

However, even when the Senate reconvenes, Rep. Watt’s nomination faces an uphill battle. It is unclear whether Senate Republicans will seek to filibuster the nomination, which would require 60 votes to break. If confirmed, Rep. Watt, a former North Carolina state legislator would lead the independent federal agency that regulates most federal home finance programs, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Supporters of the Congressman have cited his two decades of Congressional experience, service on the House Financial Services committee, and previous legal work specializing in minority business and economic development law.

» Education

“President Proposes Federal College Aid Reforms Tied to Institutions’ Outcomes”
On August 22, President Obama announced a package of proposals intended to reform the federal college aid system. These reforms included establishing a system by the U.S. Department of Education to rank colleges and universities based on how well they graduate students, serve disadvantaged students, on affordability, and ability to manage debt. This rating system would be set in place prior to the 2015 academic year. The President will pursue legislation to tie these results to future federal funding streams and student aid, providing greater funding to schools that perform best in these areas. In his remarks, the President also called on state legislatures to do more to fund colleges and student aid.

» International Affairs; Emergency Preparedness/Homeland Security

“House Working on a Piecemeal Approach to Immigration Reform”
Representatives in the House were able to push five bills out of committees addressing immigration reform this past month. Using a piecemeal approach, the House passed five bills addressing areas discussed in the previous Senate bill.

  • The Border Security Results Act (H.R. 1417) aims to apprehend at least 90% of those suspected of crossing the U.S.’s southern border over the next five years. The bill also outlines suggestions for evaluation of this plan.
  • The Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 1773) relates to guest agricultural workers and allows these workers to stay in the U.S. for 18-36 months depending on the position. It also sets a cap of 500,000 visas for guest agricultural workers, but can be adjusted according to market needs.
  • The Skills Visa Act (H.R. 2131) dramatically increases visas for highly skilled workers. It also offers visas for foreign entrepreneurs and immigrants with advanced degrees in STEM fields from American schools, and eliminates per-country caps for employment-based visas as well as the diversity visa program. Both the House and Senate immigration plans eliminate the diversity visa program. The diversity visa program, which allots visas to countries from which the U.S. otherwise admits low numbers of immigrants, helps to increase the diversity of the immigrant pool, and has been a significant vehicle for African and Caribbean immigrants to enter the U.S.
  • The Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (H.R. 2278) allows state and local officials to arrest immigrants without proper documentation and carry out federal immigration law.
  • The Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772) requires the federal government to centralize administration of E-verify systems and make it accessible to all employers within five years, which employers must then use.

» Emergency Preparedness/Homeland Security

“Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Releases Report”
On August 19, the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force released its executive report. In it, the task force provided steps lawmakers can to take in rebuilding communities devastated by the November 2012 storm, as well as recommendations to better prepare for future incidents. Steps include improving data sharing, fostering regional partnerships to increase savings and facilitate infrastructure investments, and streamlining financing options for rebuilding homes and businesses. The report also recommended reforms to the federally administered National Flood Insurance program, and building capacity on the state and local level in the Sandy-impacted region to better improve preparations in advance of disasters.

» Telecommunication, Science, and Technology

“House Passes Cell Phone Unlocking Bill”
The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (H.R. 1123), introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), passed the House in July. The bill restores consumers’ ability to unlock their mobile phones in order to switch from one wireless carrier to another and puts “the power is put back in the hands of the consumer,” according to bill authors.

An amendment proposed to allow certain third parties, such as family members, help a cell phone owner unlock his or her phone, was added to the bill before being passed as well as an amendment that would direct the Librarian of Congress to determine whether the cell phone unlocking exception should be applied to other wireless devices. A companion bill has also been introduced in the Senate.

What’s Happening This Month?

  1. National Sickle Cell Awareness Month – September is sickle cell awareness month. Sickle cell disease (SCD) affects people of many racial and ethnic groups. It is an inherited blood disorder that affects red blood cells – which carry oxygen throughout the body and are normally round and shaped like a disc. Crescent or sickle shaped cells tend to be sticky and more rigid, and stack up, causing blockage of blood flow to organs and limbs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S. have SCD.
  2. Hispanic Heritage Month – Celebrated from September 15 – October 15, this month is dedicated to paying tribute to the generations of Hispanic and Latino Americans who have contributed to American heritage, culture, and society. Eight Latin American countries celebrate their independence days between September 15th and 21st, including Mexico’s on September 16th.
  3. Labor Day - Labor Day is usually observed on the first Monday of September and will be observed this year on September 2, 2013. The first Labor Day was celebrated as a legal public holiday on September 3, 1894, and annually celebrates contributions that American workers have made to the prosperity, strength, and well-being of our country.
  4. National Grandparents Day - Grandparents Day is celebrated each year on the Sunday following Labor Day. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a federal proclamation, declaring the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day. This day has been observed ever since.