The Do-Nothing Congress Did Do Some Things . . .

By Hilary Jochmans

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During the 116th Congress, which lasts from January 3, 2019 to December 31, 2020, Congress passed 169 bills that were signed into law by the President. In terms of context, nearly 16,000 bills were introduced. By these numbers, only roughly 1.25% of bills became law, leading to the nickname “Do-Nothing Congress.” But to call it that is to discount the value of the legislation that was enacted. In this article, I will highlight several impactful bills that are now the law of the land.

By nature of the political landscape in Washington during the 116th Congress, all bills signed into law were bipartisan. We have had a divided government with the House of Representatives in Democrat control and the Senate and the White House controlled by Republicans. Support by all three is required for enactment.

COVID-19 dominated all aspects of American life in 2020, including Congressional action. While much attention has been paid to relief measures left untouched, there were significant measures enacted early in the pandemic. A trio of measures passed in March, totaling nearly $3 trillion, allotted funds for aid to states, virus testing, enhanced unemployment insurance, nutrition assistance, and an additional $50 million for Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Support of the LSC is a long-standing priority of the Bar. In addition, the legislation created relief programs for sole proprietorships and small businesses in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). Some additional targeted relief measures were passed in the following months, but broader economic relief for states and businesses languished in a partisan battle that was waged on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The New York State Bar Association weighed in with the Congressional leadership and the New York Congressional delegation on several provisions important to the Association and its members throughout the legislative response to the pandemic process. NYSBA advocated for additional emergency funding for the PPP and EIDL. Many solo practitioners and members in small firms benefited from these targeted relief proposals.

As the pandemic continued and Congress considered additional relief measures, President Karson advocated for student loan relief and increased broadband access. More than 40 million Americans, mostly people under 35 years of age, have student loan debt. An early relief bill provided temporary relief for federal student loan borrowers through September 2020. However, it was evident that more needed to be done, so the Bar urged enactment of legislation that would expand the program to private loans and provide targeted monetary relief in cases of economic hardship.

The pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have left millions of Americans working, educating, and socializing in a virtual world. It has become abundantly clear that broadband service is an important communications tool which has become vitally necessary for educational purposes, telemedicine, as well as access to justice. NYSBA urged Congress to include appropriate funding for the expansion of a 21st-century digital infrastructure. As of the Election Day, additional relief has not been enacted.

In addition to COVID-related measures, Congress also enacted legislation dealing with veterans, the environment, Holocaust education, older Americans, criminal justice and suicide prevention:

The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act

This measure directs the Justice Department to coordinate training and grants for states and localities to establish treatment courts for veterans. These specialized courts would serve veterans accused of nonviolent crimes. The courts already exist in many states and typically assist veterans with mental health services, including substance abuse issues. In fact, the first Veterans Treatment Court in the nation was established in the City of Buffalo in 2008. NYSBA, particularly the Committee on Veterans, has been involved with these courts for many years.

Great American Outdoors Act

This monumental legislative package provides over $9 billion over five years in the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for the federal government to acquire new lands for parks and trails; to protect endangered species and threatened forests, and for deferred maintenance for parkland throughout the U.S. In New York, the Statue of Liberty would be eligible for maintenance payments. Parkland and open-spaces throughout the state – from the tip of the Sound in Long Island to the top of the mountains in the Adirondacks – would benefit from this measure. It is worth noting that the law required federal agencies to submit to Congress, within 90 days of enactment, a list of shovel-ready deferred maintenance projects. The deadline of November 2, 2020, came and went without such a list. As of this writing, the timing for next steps was unclear.

Never Again Education Act

As the U.S. has seen a rise in antisemitism and hate crimes, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation authorizing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to use $2 million annually in federal funds to educate teachers on the Holocaust. The measure defines the Holocaust as the “systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder” of six million Jews and other targeted groups, including Roma, Slavs, communists, disabled people, and LGBTQ people. New York is one of only 12 states whose public schools provide education on the Holocaust. The fund from the Act would go to create and improve programs on the history as well as the importance of preventing discrimination, intolerance and genocide. Middle and high school teachers, along with certain prospective teachers, are eligible to participate.

Supporting Older Americans Act

Enacted originally in 1965, the Older Americans Act was created to provide target services for seniors and their caregivers. This historic legislation was reauthorized this year through 2024 and will fund programs for nutritional services (including meal delivery, which is particularly important during the pandemic), disease prevention, caregivers, workforce training regarding elder care, and abuse and neglect prevention services, among other things. Reflective of the times with mandated stay-at-home orders and quarantines, this legislation also directs the Administration on Aging to develop plans and strategies for supporting state and local efforts to address social isolation among older Americans.

The Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act

This measure reauthorizes a Justice Department grant that supports state and local law enforcement agencies in analyzing DNA evidence from crimes, including rape kits. Touted as the most important anti-rape legislation by the bill’s sponsor, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the law provides much needed resources to local governments and law enforcement agencies for DNA evidence training for health professionals and court, correctional and law enforcement personnel.

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act    

Suicide is a growing public health crisis in America. According to the bill sponsor, Senator Tammy Baldwin, nearly 45,000 Americans die by suicide every year in the U.S. This bill creates the special 9-8-8 three-digit hotline, similar to the 9-1-1 emergency line. Currently, suicide prevention crisis numbers are 10 digits, a hurdle to those seeking urgent help. Veterans calling this number will be automatically routed to a line dedicated to support veteran-specific mental health assistance. The bill passed with overwhelming support within Congress and from mental health and veterans groups. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is charged with implementing the system.

As we wrap up the 116th Congress and 2020, we want to look to the 117th Congress and 2021. The Executive Branch will be in the hands of President-elect Joe Biden come January 20, but political control of the Senate remains unresolved, pending two crucial runoff elections in Georgia in early January that could tip the balance of power.   .. We hope to know more by then and we will start to wander down a new path and explore the new political topography.

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