Gridlock and partisanship are the prevailing themes to describe the U.S. Congress in 2013. By many accounts, the first year of the 113th Session of Congress was the most polarized and least productive year of Congress on record. Yet it is in precisely such a climate that the voices of faith-based advocates for justice and peace are as important as ever, for it is just such advocacy, deeply rooted in a theological understanding of the common good, that offers the most substantive hope for breaking through partisan ideology and political maneuvering to critical dialogue about the issues facing our nation and the world.
As disappointing as the legislative outcomes of 2013 are for justice and peace advocates, your faithful witness helped to re-energize the national dialogue around vital issues like comprehensive immigration reform, gun violence prevention, a fair and just federal budget, worker justice and a living wage, violence against women, global peace and security, among a host of others. That witness offers a foundation to build on in 2014.
Below you will find a recap of the many domestic and international legislative issues that UCC advocates worked on this year. We invite you to brush up on the legislative actions of 2013 as we prepare for advocacy in the year ahead.
Looking Ahead to 2014
With the midterm congressional elections on the horizon in November 2014, it is more challenging to forecast the outlook for key legislative issues before Congress. One thing is clear: your faith advocacy for justice and peace remains as vital as ever in 2014. Efforts to advocate for a just and lasting peace to war-torn corners of the world are a lifeline to the millions who face despair, displacement, continuing violence and the loss of family members and communities. The hope for a fair and just immigration policy, meaningful steps to address gun violence, closing the widening income gap and the further economic marginalization of millions of families, restoring voting rights and reclaiming the democratic process from unlimited campaign spending, and advocating for a federal budget that more faithfully reflects our values and a commitment to the common good continues into the new legislative year. Your phone calls, letters and visits to members of Congress, vigils and educational events, letters to the editor and media outreach, voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts, and your prayers all bring us a little bit closer to that vision. We look forward to continuing to partner in this vital work in the upcoming year.
Congress began 2013 with a last-minute deal to avoid an impending “fiscal cliff,” but was nevertheless unable to agree on an alternative to sequestration, a package of across-the-board budget cuts that was mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and intended to be so onerous for both sides as to prod members to reach a budget agreement.
A glimmer of hope for breaking the partisan impasse on the federal budget emerged after the 16-day federal government shutdown in October, when members of Congress were finally able to reach a bipartisan budget agreement in December, the first bipartisan budget agreement since the 1990s.The deal, which provides federal funding for the next two years, should bring some relief from the political brinkmanship our country has been facing for months. However, the deal also did not include any substantial policy changes, tax reforms, or an increase in the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling will likely be reached in February, so it will need to be addressed again shortly.
The deal includes a top line of $1.012 trillion for FY2014, a mid-point between the House and Senate proposals. The deal restores $85 billion in sequester cuts that would have been faced over the next two years, and evenly splits sequester relief between defense spending and non-defense discretionary spending. However, that relief is offset by different types of cuts and additional fees. Airline fees will increase; federal workers must pay a higher portion of their pensions; and federal unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed expired on December 28.
As of this writing, Congress is currently still debating whether or not to extend unemployment insurance for jobless workers, a decision impacting some 1.3 million Americans and their families.
UCC advocates focused their advocacy around the Farm Bill negotiations on two issues: stopping cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nurtrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and requiring conservation compliance for recipients of federal crop insurance subsidies.
At the time of writing, Congress has still not passed a Farm Bill, but reports are that conference committee negotiations should result in the bill’s passage within a couple of weeks. SNAP will probably face cuts of $8.7 billion, which is a compromise between the cuts proposed by House and Senate versions. SNAP benefits average less than $1.40 per person per meal. About 40 percent of SNAP recipients are children, and 13 percent are seniors.
The Senate passed a requirement that crop insurance subsidy recipients comply with conservation measures, but the House did not; it is likely that the final Farm Bill will include some conservation compliance requirements. Conservation requirements have dramatically reduced erosion on farmland and protected wetlands, keeping land productive and natural resources intact.
The issue of sexual trauma in the military was prominent in 2013, which led to several reforms passing with the National Defense Authorization Act. It is now illegal for commanders to overturn jury convictions; cases not sent to trial will be investigated by a civilian authority; the statute of limitations on military sexual crimes has been removed; service members found guilty of serious sexual crimes will face mandatory dismissal or dishonorable discharge; retaliating against those who report military sexual trauma is considered a crime; and additional legal and support services are now also available for victims.
One proposed provision which has not yet received a vote is the Military Justice Improvement Act. The MJIA would place the decision of whether or not to prosecute a case into the hands of a military prosecutor, rather than keep that decision within the chain of command. This proposal has garnered wide support from bipartisan members of Congress, survivors of military sexual trauma and survivor advocacy groups, women’s groups, veterans’ groups, and the faith community. There is currently no equivalent proposal in the House, but Senate leadership has promised this bill will be brought to a vote, likely in late January or early February.
There has not been much reproductive health legislation in the past year with any traction for movement at the federal level, but many states continues to pass more restrictive measures around access to abortion. Among these restrictions are: parental consent for minors, bans on specific types of abortion procedures, unusually stringent and burdensome regulations on abortion providers, and funding roadblocks.
In the spring of 2014, the Supreme Court will hear two cases related to the contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, will determine whether or not businesses have religious freedom rights which could exempt them from the ACA mandate that employers provide health insurance for employees that includes birth control and related medical services.
A version of comprehensive immigration reform offering a path to citizenship passed the Senate but could not be advanced in the House in 2013. House leadership hints that it may bring a series of piecemeal bills to the floor in 2014, but advocates for just and humane immigration reform fear that such piecemeal bills will focus on increasing border security and enforcement, fall short of legislation needed to address families torn apart by current immigration law and fail to offer a meaningful path to citizenship to undocumented workers currently in the country.
Despite widespread public outcry and concern about the rising toll of gun violence in the wake of the tragic December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, as well as the epidemic levels of gun violence in cities and communities around the country on a daily basis, Congress failed to take any action on legislation to address gun violence. A modest, bipartisan measure (the Manchin-Toomey bill) to strengthen background checks was narrowly defeated in the Senate. The House did not take up the bill in 2013. Hoped-for action on reinstating the assault weapons ban and a ban on high capacity ammunition clips did not materialize.
In a year in which Congress passed the fewest number of bills in decades, the House of Representatives was vigorous in its continued efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, with numerous votes to defund or otherwise delay implementation of the ACA. None of these measures moved in the Senate.
Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, legislation which has consistently received strong bipartisan support and demonstrated effectiveness in addressing violence against women, was pushed into early 2013, when it was finally approved by Congress. The reauthorization package included provisions to improve domestic violence prevention programs in Native American communities, and to better address violence impacting immigrant women, the LGBT community and women with disabilities.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill to prohibit discrimination in hiring, firing or promoting employees based solely on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, reached an important milestone when it was passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee by a bipartisan majority in a vote of 15 to 7.
A peace process in Colombia between the government and the FARC insurgents continues to make historic progress. Sides have come to agreement on the first of two controversial issues: land reform and political participation. Several issues remain such as victims’ rights, drug trafficking, disarmament/demobilization, and implementation, but Colombians and advocates remain heartened that progress will continue so long as both sides remain at the table.
The recently passed National Defense Authorization Bill included provisions that eased some Congressional restrictions on transferring detainees. The hope of closing Guantanamo remains elusive, and more pressure will be needed in 2014 to convince President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise and close the prison.
Iran: The Obama Administration reached an agreement with the Iranian government on the scope of its nuclear energy program; however, the agreement is threatened by voices in the U.S. Senate calling for legislation to re-impose strict trade sanctions on Iran.
Syria: Even as the ongoing civil war continues to take a devastating toll, diplomatic efforts in 2013 did help avoid military intervention and set a timeline for Syria to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons. The prospects for peace in this war-weary land remain distant.
Israel/Palestine: Secretary of State Kerry breathed new life into the Middle East peace process in 2013 by bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. He is expected to present a framework for negotiations early in 2014 with the hope for a comprehensive agreement to be reached sometime in 2015.
Iraq: A recent upsurge in violence and insurgent conflict at the end of 2013 in Iraq has dimmed hopes for a just and lasting peace to continue to take hold. Global debt: In 2013, Jubilee USA helped garner opposition in a landmark court case involving Argentina and vulture funds seeking windfall profits and continued its work on fair and transparent lending.
Victory in the fight against Human Trafficking: On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the primary legislative tool for funding programs to combat human trafficking and supporting victims.