Countdown for Congress: A Long To-Do List
Hilary on the Hill
As the midterm elections loom and Congress attempts to rack up some legislative accomplishments before November, there has been positive movement on several of NYSBA’s 2022 federal priorities, and NYSBA’s leadership went to Washington virtually to lobby for more. In the last column, I outlined NYSBA’s priorities for 2022, and here I will update our readers on recent developments and examine the outlook for our other items.
Every year, the American Bar Association holds legislative advocacy days in Washington. Again this year, the event was virtual, due to the pandemic and resulting restricted access to the Capitol building. But NYSBA leadership, including President Brown and President-elect Sherry Levin Wallach, met with delegation members to thank them for their support of three priorities that were approved by Congress already this year.
A new priority for the association this year was support for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. This landmark law was first championed by now-President Biden when he was in the Senate in 1993. Tragically, authorization of VAWA and its critical programs lapsed due to congressional inaction. The impact of VAWA legislation over a quarter of a century has been transformative, directly impacting the lives of countless survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence. Fortunately, a deal was reached on reauthorization, and it was included in the omnibus appropriations bill that provided funding for the federal government through Sept. 30, 2022. We hope this lifeline will never be dropped again and that Congress will fully fund their programs for next year.
A perennial priority for NYSBA is funding for the Legal Services Corp. LSC is an independent nonprofit corporation established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. LSC promotes equal access to justice by providing funding to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid programs. New York has seven LSC grantees, which serve low-income individuals, children, families, seniors and veterans in 813 offices in every congressional district. It is critically important that Congress provide adequate funding for LSC in order to provide access to justice for those who need assistance. This has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support on the Hill, even during the Trump era when the president zeroed out funding in his budget. For the past few years, Congress has fully funded LSC. For FY22, LSC received $489 million, $20 million over last year’s appropriation level. I would expect an increase again this year, but the need is so great that more money is always needed.
As states like New York have legalized adult-use marijuana, the conflict with existing federal regulations hinders the state’s ability to craft effective and legal policies. NYSBA supports legislation that would: (1) exempt from the Controlled Substances Act any production, distribution, possession or use of marijuana carried out in compliance with state laws; (2) remove marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act; and (3) encourage scientific research into the efficacy, dose, administration or side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the U.S. With a Democratic administration and a nominally Democratic-controlled Congress, there was renewed optimism that relevant legislation would progress. On Friday, April 1, the House passed, 220-204, Chairman Nadler’s Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which is in line with NYSBA’s position. The bill would eliminate criminal penalties associated with the drug and establish a process to expunge previous convictions from criminal records. It would further impose a federal tax on marijuana sales to fund programs meant to help communities negatively impacted by so-called “war on drugs” policies from the 1970s. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said that marijuana legalization is a top priority, and he has been working with fellow Democrats to unveil a bill this spring. It’s not yet clear, however, if enough Senate Republicans, or even all Democrats, would get on board for the bill to clear a filibuster. When NYSBA’s leadership met with Senator Schumer’s staff during ABA Days, they raised NYSBA’s support and offered to assist in any way needed with our Section experts and staff.
As the clock runs on the 117th Congress, members in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle, as well as the president, are looking for and needing some legislative wins.While Congress may not be able to come to agreements to pass legislation, the president has the authority to act unilaterally in some instances and implement policy changes by executive action.
Executive Orders are directives from the president of the United States that are written, signed and numbered and have the force of law. They do not require the approval of Congress, but Congress can overturn them by a vote. Historically, EOs have been used by every president since George Washington to a varying degree. As Congress fails to reach agreement on major policy issues, some members of Congress, particularly those in the Progressive Caucus, are angling for President Biden to issue more EOs on a variety of issues. Topics being discussed include NYSBA priorities of policing reform, immigration and gun violence. As of this writing, President Biden has issued 87 EOs on issues including health care, the environment and equality.
President Biden also acted with the Department of Education to extend the moratorium on federal student loan payments through the end of August. As part of the CARES package passed by Congress early in the pandemic, student loan payments were paused for a discrete period of time as many Americans fell ill from COVID-19 or lost their jobs due to the shutdowns. Payments were scheduled to start again on May 1. But many in Congress, as well as civic groups, have been calling for an extension of the moratorium through the end of the year, with many going further to call for a cancellation of student debt. NYSBA is calling on Congress to provide some form of student loan relief to the over 40 million Americans saddled with this debt.
The number of days left in the 117th Congress is short, but the to-do list is long. Will Congress be able to pass legislation to keep the government and the economy running? Will there be accomplishments for members of Congress to tout when they run for reelection during the often-punishing midterm elections? Or will the president act unilaterally to further his agenda? The political landscape could look very different a year from now in Washington, and that vision will be the motivation for all parties in the coming months.