Members of Congress wrapped up their pre-election work in Washington on Sept. 18 and headed home to hit the campaign trail. With the exception of a few committee meetings that continue to take place, the official work of Congress is on hold until they return on Nov. 12. Below are highlights of a few important issues they did – and didn’t – act on before leaving Washington:
Stopgap Spending Bill Keeps Government Open: Both the House and Senate passed a stopgap spending bill to keep the government funded into the new fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. The $1.012 trillion temporary spending measure (H.J. Res. 124), known as a continuing resolution (CR), will keep the government funded and operating through December 11 at current FY 2014 spending levels. The bill also included an extra $88 million for efforts to fight Ebola, an extension of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program through the duration of the CR, an increase in funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program to provide food packages for low-income elders, a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank through 2015, and authorization language for the U.S. to fight the Islamic State terrorist organization. It did not include additional funding for the child refugee crisis, although it does provide some flexibility sought by the Obama Administration for the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to move money within their agencies to continue operations to deal with the crisis. The CR passed the House on Sept. 17 and the Senate the following day, and was signed into law by President Obama on Sept. 19.
When Congress returns to D.C. after the November elections, they will most likely either draft and pass an omnibus bill comprised of all 12 required spending bills or pass another CR that will extend into 2015. If the Republicans take control of the Senate in the upcoming elections, the latter could be a more appealing option to them. However, some Republicans, including House Appropriations Committee Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY), believe it would be best to pass an omnibus bill in the lame duck session so the new Congress does not have to start out by finishing up old work. The longer the CR lasts, agencies and programs are hurt as it severely limits their ability to adjust their spending and activities to respond to changing realities. For more information on the CR, see CHN’s Sept. 15 Human Needs Report.
Foster Care and Sex Trafficking Bill Becomes Law: On their last night of legislative action, the Senate passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, and the bill was signed into law (Public Law No: 113-183) by President Obama on Sept. 29. This legislation, which passed the House on July 23, focuses on the needs of older youth in foster care and increases protections against sex trafficking of foster youth and is fully paid for. Addressing a previous point of contention, the law requires states to provide youth aging out of the foster care system with essential documents including a birth certificate, Social Security card, health records, and accompanying insurance information, as well as a driver’s license or recognized state ID. It also increases adoption incentives for states, especially for older youth. In addition, the law requires improvements in tracking, screening, and reporting of foster youth that have gone missing and might have been the victims of sexual trafficking during that time. Advocates contend that the state has taken on the responsibility to protect these youth, which includes protection from becoming victims of sex trafficking while within the system. For more information, see CHN’s July 22 Human Needs Report and this analysis of the law from First Focus.
One Senator Holds Up Child Care Bill: Senator Patrick Toomey (R-PA) put a hold on legislation to reauthorize the federal low-income child care program, preventing the Senate from clearing the bill before they left town. The legislation (S. 1086) would reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) for the first time since 1996 and increase the authorized level of funding for the program the funds state efforts to help low-income families pay for child care. In addition, it would improve the quality and safety of child care by requiring background checks for staff, reporting of child abuse, training for child care workers, and health and safety inspections.
The new legislation would authorize $2.4 billion in discretionary spending (spending that requires annual funding approval) for FY 2015, up from $2.36 billion in FY 2014, and rising to $2.7 billion by FY 2020. As authorized levels, they set a ceiling of what appropriators can approve, but do not force them to provide the total allowed. Many programs receive less than the authorized level, and in an era of discretionary spending cuts, there will be pressure to appropriate less. Advocates are in favor of the improvements, though they recognize that if the proposed funding increases do not materialize, the quality improvements will result in fewer child care placements being funded. The program also receives $2.9 billion in mandatory spending, which is not subject to the annual appropriations process. For more information on the legislation, see CHN’s Sept. 15 Human Needs Report.
An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate in March, and on Sept. 15 the House passed a compromise version released just days earlier that has bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress. According to CQ, Senator Toomey offered to release his hold on the child care bill in exchange for a floor vote on a bill of his own, which would require teachers in elementary and secondary schools to undergo background checks. Leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee said Toomey’s bill should go through the normal committee review and approval process before getting a vote on the Senate floor. Advocates were hopeful the reauthorization of the CCDBG would make it to the President’s desk in quick fashion; however, Senator Toomey’s hold has left the timing of possible Senate passage uncertain.