CHN: Other Actions Congress Took – or Didn’t – Before Heading Home: Criminal Justice, Child Nutrition, Opioids and More

With Congress wrapping up its work and leaving Capitol Hill – for the last time, for many retiring members of Congress and those who lost re-election bids, many issues of importance to human needs advocates were unfortunately left unfinished. Some may be taken up by the next Congress, while others may not see movement for the foreseeable future.

Congress failed to complete a reauthorization of child nutrition programs this year, despite the fact that the previous reauthorization expired September 30, 2015. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act sets the policy and funding structure for all of the federal school meal and child nutrition programs. Many of these programs are permanently authorized (subject to Congress funding their operations) and continue to operate, but Congress reviews the laws governing them every five years – or so. While there were efforts throughout the year to move this legislation, complications and disagreements arose. Advocates opposed the House version of the bill (H.R. 5003) because it would have weakened the Community Eligibility Provision that allows high-poverty schools to provide free meals to all students,  failed to address shortfalls in the summer food programs, and created block grants for school meal programs in three states. The House version of the bill passed the Education and Workforce Committee in May, and the Senate version of the bill was approved by the Agriculture Committee in January; neither bill made it the floor it its respective chamber. Looking ahead, advocates will continue to fight back against attempts to block grant the programs, make it harder for families to sign up their children, or in any way diminish the ability of child nutrition programs to reduce hunger, improve health and support learning.

Advocates had also hoped to see further movement of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123), which would reduce sentences for many of those convicted of drug offenses – who are disproportionately African American, Latino and low income. Despite having strong bipartisan support and having cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2015, the bill was never brought up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Congress also failed to act to protect children and families from lead paint and dust in housing, which along with lead-contaminated water, also disproportionately affects low-income families. The Lead-Safe Housing for Kids Act (S. 2631) was introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), with the same bill introduced in the House by Rep. Keith Ellison (H.R. 4694). These bills focus on protecting children from lead poisoning in federally-assisted housing.  A more limited set of protections is being initiated through HUD rules changes.

Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 34), which will direct billions of dollars to the National Institutes of Health for cancer research. It will also direct $1 billion to states over two years to help fight prescription drug abuse, subject to the appropriations process; $500 million for states was included in the stopgap spending bill signed into law earlier this month. (For more information about that, see CR article in this issue.) The Cures Act also contains provisions to improve mental health care. The bill was passed with strong bipartisan support by the House (392-26) on November 30 and by the Senate (94-5) on December 7, and it was signed by President Obama on December 13.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation on December 9 to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation should President Trump discontinue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. According to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL ), the lead sponsor of the bill along  with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE Act) would ensure that “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as children could continue to work and study and be protected from deportation “while Congress debates broader legislation to fix our broken immigration system.” More than 740,000 young people have been granted protection under DACA, but President-elect Trump has promised to repeal those protections, a move that would force these young people back to coping with the fear of deportation. The bill is expected to be reintroduced next year. Sen. Graham said that he believes the executive action creating DACA was unconstitutional and that President-elect Trump would be right to repeal it, but also said that it would not be right to “pull the rug out” from under the young people who applied for the program.

child nutrition
criminal justice
Lead contamination