Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Legislative Review and Glimpse Ahead

We’ve asked our staff to help us unpack the complex justice issues that we’re working on. Using our General Synod pronouncements as the basis for these reflections, we hope to provide insights into the issues you care about that are rooted in our shared faith, and can inform your advocacy efforts. This month, Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC Washington office, offers a look at our 2012 advocacy and glimpse of what’s to come.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Legislative Review and Glimpse Ahead

The year 2012 was far from a banner year for the U.S. Congress. Deep partisan divisions, inflammatory rhetoric and an unwillingness to compromise created a legislative gridlock that is nearly unprecedented.  Members of Congress chose to postpone key decisions on the federal budget, debt ceiling, immigration, public education and violence against women.  For the first time in decades, Congress failed to reauthorize the Farm Bill, and instead included a short-term extension of the Farm Bill in the fiscal cliff agreement signed on January 2, 2013.The 112th Congress is slated to go down in history as one of the least productive legislative sessions since the 1940s.

Differences between House and Senate versions of reauthorization for the Violence Against Women Act, legislation that has drawn strong bipartisan support over the years, resulted in the failure to pass a VAWA reauthorization in 2012.  [Note: Senator Leahy has since reintroduced in the 113th Congress the stronger version of the bill favored by women’s advocacy groups, which would expand services for currently underserved communities including immigrant women, women living on tribal lands, communities of color and the LGBT community.] The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill to ensure that salary differences are not gender-related, was also blocked.

The Senate failed to ratify the international Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, despite the fact that U.S. ratification could serve as a beacon for progress on accessibility in other countries, and that it closely mirrors U.S. policy outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Colombia Free Trade agreement was passed over concerns voiced by the progressive faith community about its lack of environmental and labor protections.  However, advocates were successful in advocating for the inclusion of a provision to establish a congressional monitoring committee on labor practices.

In a pivotal presidential election year, members of Congress were reluctant to take up hot-button political issues like immigration reform and climate change, leaving legislative action on these issues to the 113th Congress.  House and Senate did not come close to reconciling widely divergent versions of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, thereby creating a gap in which the Department of Education has essentially been making policy through administratively-granted waivers to states without Congressional oversight. 

The November elections brought big changes to the demographics of Congress.  The 113th session of Congress has a record representation of women: 20 women in the Senate and 81 in the House.  It is also more racially and culturally diverse, changes that begin to reflect a more multiracial, multicultural U.S. electorate.

A last-minute agreement on the “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations delayed the impending sequester (part of the 2011 Budget Control Act) with its across-the-board cuts to military and nondefense discretionary spending.  As part of the fiscal cliff deal, there was movement on tax policy, with the payroll tax “holiday” allowed to expire, and the tax rates on those making $400,000 (individuals) and $450,000 (couples) increased.  However, the debate on tax reform is far from over.

Budget debates will continue to loom large in 2013.  On March 1, the delayed sequester will take effect unless Congress can reach an alternative agreement.  The continuing resolution on the budget temporarily delayed the prospect of a government shutdown, but it expires on March 27.  Sometime in March, the President is expected to release his proposed FY 2014 budget, and the House and Senate Budget Committees are tasked with drafting their budget proposals by mid-April.  While the fiscal cliff deal postponed debate over raising the debt ceiling, a May 18th deadline looms, with sharp divisions in Congress about an overall approach to deficit reduction, job creation, economic growth and spending on core programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.    

President Obama pledged action in the areas of immigration reform, climate change, gun control, equal pay and voting rights in his January 2013 inaugural address.  A bipartisan proposal on immigration reform has been introduced in the 113th Congress, although there are disagreements about provisions related to a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and border security requirements.

The horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December pushed the issue of gun control to new prominence in the outlook for legislative priorities in 2013. In the wake of this and other high-profile, tragic shootings in 2012, advocates of stronger legislation to curb gun control have renewed efforts reinstitute assault weapons ban, institute a ban on high capacity ammunition clips and strengthen background checks.  But with public momentum for action waning, and congressional opposition to such legislation growing, this will be a steep hill to climb.

International peace and security issues also loom large in 2013. Many faith advocates look for meaningful policy dialogue on the use of unmanned drones in warfare and the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay.

Also in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear landmark cases on marriage equality, voting rights and affirmative action, which will likely reignite public debate on these issues. 

Whether or not the upcoming legislative year holds promise for movement on key policy issues or further gridlock and polarization depends significantly on the voice of the public.  As faith advocates for just public policy, we face great opportunities for strides forward in economic justice, civil and human rights, and global peace and security in the 113th Congress.  Such efforts, as they have throughout history, will require steadfast commitment to the work of justice advocacy.

Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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