111th Congress Legislative Preview

January 14, 2009

Domestic Policy

Health Care Reform: Several coalitions of faith groups, unions, think tanks, and social policy advocates have been formed to provide principles for achieving comprehensive health care reform that provides universal access to health care. Although it is by no means clear that major health care reform will get done, all indications are that the incoming Administration and both the House and Senate are prepared to do the heavy lifting to pass a reform bill. In the meantime, the Congress is set to pass a 4.5-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which The Episcopal Church has firmly supported and advocated over the past few years. This passage will be considered the first step in the move for comprehensive health care reform.

Energy Policy: There are indications that the Democratic majority in Congress is prepared to pass an economic stimulus bill that could possibly include energy provisions. The mainline denominations have been meeting with majority staff from the Speaker’s office and the relevant committees to ask that the stimulus include policies that encourage energy conservation in the federal government, and in American homes, communities, national transportation and distribution systems and commercial enterprises. We have also met with the transition team to advocate for legislation to encourage energy conservation and the use of renewable energy sources.

Climate Change: Included in our message about energy is its link with climate change. Given encouraging rhetoric from the incoming Administration and new leadership at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the mainline denominations are asking the new Administration to re-engage in United Nations international climate negotiations to address global climate change and encourage Congress to let justice, stewardship, sustainability and sufficiency be the principles that guide any attempt to address climate change. Specifically, Congress should ensure that the average temperature does not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius and protect those living in poverty from the impacts of climate change and climate legislation through focused resources to low income people living in the U.S.

Economic Stimulus: Working with the other faith groups, we will be taking the opportunity to make Members of Congress aware of the range of issues that we think the Congress should address in any economic stimulus package, including increased unemployment compensation, Native American communities, food stamps, Medicaid funding, and the Women, Infants, Children nutrition program.

Immigration and Refugees

Immigration Reform: Immigration reform will be one of the challenges for the new Administration and Congress. There are high expectations for comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of the Obama Administration but passage will require both leadership from President Obama and bipartisan support. The key, and most challenging, aspects of immigration reform will be: a legalization program for the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants; the enforcement of immigration laws; and the management of future flows. Even if immigration reform is not accomplished in the short term, there are many changes that can come from the new Administration, particularly with policies dealing with immigration enforcement.

Refugee Issues: Iraqi refugees will be a central issue for the Obama Administration. Refugees and internally displaced individuals in Iraq continue to be a serious humanitarian crisis that affects the whole region. The United States will have, as expressed by President elect Obama during the campaign, a central role in this crisis. The Obama administration will have to work with partners in the region, with the Iraqi government and with other developed nations to provide an appropriate response to the urgent needs of refugees.

Foreign Policy

Foreign Aid Modernization and Reform: A broad coalition of development advocates and implementers, think-tank organizations, faith-based groups and others are in the early stages of advocating for a full-scale reform of the United States’ foreign-assistance efforts in order to establish the alleviation of deadly poverty and disease as a central, strategic objective of American foreign policy. The current foreign-aid system (which dates to 1961) is outdated and messy, with too many agencies in the U.S. government working at cross purposes, and a lack of an overall guiding strategy. The Episcopal Church and other advocates are now in the process of developing broad principles for reform. Working with these principles, we will urge the relevant committees in the House and Senate, in consultation with the Obama Administration, to begin the process of redesigning and modernizing our foreign-aid efforts.

Cuba Embargo: Removal or reform of the Cuba embargo will be another foreign-policy priority for TEC, as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Church World Service. As Senator, President-elect Obama signaled a willingness to scale back the embargo -- a step that has been endorsed by Congress but ran afoul of the Bush Administration. If removal of the entire embargo is not possible due to the political situation in Cuba and embargo advocates here, our initial priorities for reform would be: (1) Removal or reduction of the ban on American travel to Cuba and the strident limits on financial remittances from American citizens to persons living in Cuba; and (2) Reform of the American government’s process for granting visas to Cuban citizens to travel to the U.S. At the moment, the Cuban government encourages such travel, but the U.S. in nearly all situations denies travel visas including religious-travel visas to Cuban clergy, bishops, and laity who wish to travel to the U.S. for church-specific business.

Jubilee Act: The Jubilee Act, which provides debt cancellation to countries that need it to meet the MDGs but have not yet qualified under the World Bank’s and IMF’s debt-relief initiatives, died at the end of last Congress when the Senate failed to join the House in passing it. We’re working with the lead sponsors in the Senate – Bob Casey (D-PA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) – for a speedy reintroduction and passage in the new Congress. If that happens, we believe we’ll have the support on the House side to re-pass the bill pro-forma and forward it for signature to President-elect Obama, who was a cosponsor of the bill in the Senate.

Middle East: The crisis in Gaza adds even greater urgency to the need for President-elect Obama to respond positively to the many calls for his administration to make achieving Israeli-Arab peace an immediate priority during his first year in office. The efforts of Presidents Clinton and Bush on the Middle East came as time ran out at the end of their second terms. The need for a final status agreement that establishes a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is key not only for peace in the Holy Land, but in the whole region. Majorities of Israelis and Palestinians still see a two-state solution as the most viable option to this tragic conflict, but all recognize that the opportunity for achieving it is narrowing and the United States must act now.