In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congress' traditional August recess was cut short as leaders returned to the nation's capital to take up "emergency supplemental spending" for the ravaged Gulf Coast region, according to the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations (OGR) in Washington, D.C.
Congress approved $10.5 billion dollars in federal funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), after the agency advised congressional leaders that an immediate infusion of funding was needed, prompting the special session.
Additional aid to the region and an "economic stimulus package" to offset the disaster's impact on the national economy are expected be considered in coming weeks. According to a Congressional Budget Office assessment obtained by the Associated Press, Hurricane Katrina will reduce employment by 400,000 people in coming months while trimming U.S. economic growth by as much as a full percentage point in the second half of this year.
Congress was already scheduled to address a long list of legislation, including the FY '06 Federal budget resolution, which calls for deep cuts to the nation's programs for those in need--specifically the Food Stamp Program and Medicaid—as well as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Violence Against Women Act programs. A vote on repeal of the estate tax has been put off indefinitely.
Hurricane Katrina may also force Congress to address long-neglected issues of poverty in America. These issues were given hard numbers in the U.S. Census Bureau's annual report entitled Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004 (https://www.census.gov/). The report showed that the nation's official poverty rate is rising: "There were 37.0 million people in poverty (12.7 percent) in 2004, up from 35.9 million (12.5 percent) in 2003." The report also revealed that the number of those without employer-based health insurance coverage fell below 60 percent to 59.8 percent for the first time since 1993. The number of Americans who lack insurance climbed again, with some 45.8 million people uninsured in 2004, an increase of 800,000 people over 2003.
While the Bush administration reports that the nation is experiencing its third year of economic recovery since 2001, it is unclear how the new census data combined with the largest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. will impact congressional efforts to move forward the FY '06 Federal budget with deficit reduction agenda achieved through cuts in entitlement programs. Among the programs targeted are Medicaid, the Food Stamp Program, farm subsidies, student loans, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Congress is also attempting to win approval for gas and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Past efforts to approve drilling have failed in the Senate due to the threat of a filibuster. However, by successfully including revenues from lease sales in the Arctic Refuge in budget reconciliation legislation, proponents of drilling found a "back door" around the filibuster, according to OGR. Senate rules do not allow senators to block the "budget reconciliation bill." Proponents of drilling have attempted to connect the high cost of gas as reason for drilling in the traditional sacred space of the Episcopal Gwich'in Nation. Most experts agree that if drilling were approved it would take 7-10 years before the oil, if it exists, to begin flowing into world markets and that it would have minimal to no impact on the price of oil, which is set by oil producing nations with significantly more oil reserves than exist in the U.S. The U.S. consumes 25 percent of the world's oil, yet has only 3 percent of the world's oil reserves.
The budget is in the "reconciliation" process where committees put final numbers on the programs within their jurisdiction. Committees must report those figures on September 16 and Congress is expected to consider the budget reconciliation package in late September, according to OGR, which is closely tracking congressional action on the FY '06 Federal Budget.
In early August, an "Action Alert" from the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) asked Episcopalians to take the opportunity to meet with their members either one-on-one or with ecumenical partners to raise the concerns of the Church.
"Designed to give members a break from the swampy heat of Washington, this is a critical time to turn up the heat for our priorities. Recess is when lawmakers are most available," the Alert stated.
Over the summer the EPPN grew by 800 members and sent nearly 12,000 e-mails to members of Congress according to Mary Getz, Grassroots Coordinator for the EPPN.
Bishops Thomas C. Ely of Vermont and Wendell N. Gibbs of Michigan were both published in regional newspapers speaking out against cuts to the Food Stamp Program and urging constituents to contact their members of Congress to oppose those cuts.
Issues and Action
As Congress began its five week August recess, OGR identified a number of domestic policy priorities related to those in need that Episcopalians could bring to the attention of their elected representatives.
"News coverage of Hurricane Katrina has shown us unforgettable faces of those who live in poverty," said Maureen Shea, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations. "We hope Congress will have seen these needs and will take appropriate action. Episcopalians have long done their part to serve the least among us, and are doing so again through gifts to Episcopal Relief and Development, giving to the affected dioceses, and assistance through Episcopal Migration Ministries—but government must be a full partner in that effort, now more than ever."
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Domestic Priorities for Episcopalians
The following is a list of important domestic priorities as identified by the Office of Government Relations. All of the legislative priorities below and the work of OGR are governed by the policies of the General Convention or in the interim the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. For more information go to www.episcopalchurch.org/eppn.
The FY '06 Federal Budget: Episcopalians are urged to contact their elected representatives with these particular concerns, remembering that the victims of Hurricane Katrina will be in urgent need of many of these programs.
Food Stamps: This year's Budget Resolution requires the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to cut $3 billion from programs under their jurisdiction – including federal nutrition assistance for low-income households, particularly the Food Stamp Program - by September 16. Episcopalians should ask the Agriculture Committees to not make their budget cuts from programs providing subsistence nutrition to the nation's neediest people. Episcopalians should ask members of Congress to protect Food Stamps by opposing any cuts to the Food Stamp Program.
Medicaid: The budget resolution requires committees to cut $10 billion from Medicaid. The National Governors' Association supports shifting more of the cost of health care to low-income recipients by requiring families with incomes below 150% of the poverty line to pay up to 5% of their incomes for their medications, while Medicaid-eligible families with higher incomes would have to pay up to 7.5% of income. Advocacy groups seek to preserve Medicaid benefits for low-income households without shifting more of the cost of prescription drugs to them. In light of new revenue forecasts and the Census report Episcopalians should ask members of Congress to not reduce Medicaid benefits.
TANF: The authorization for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families expired in 2002 and the program has operated ever since on a series of short-term extensions. Congress has failed to reauthorize the program because of conflicts over a number of changes sought by various parties. The President and House Republican leaders want to impose more stringent work requirements and divert funds into "marriage promotion" initiatives. Efforts to increase childcare funding, coupled with less severe increases in the work requirements, will be lost if Congress folds a five-year extension of TANF into Budget Reconciliation. Episcopalians should ask members of Congress to keep TANF out of Budget Reconciliation and reauthorize it separately in this Congress.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Opening the Refuge to drilling continues to be a priority for this Administration. Knowing they might lose if it was included in the Energy Bill or considered separately, they put revenue from drilling in the budget and therefore it will be part of the reconciliation package. The Episcopal Gwich'in nation considers the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, where drilling would occur, their traditional sacred space because it is the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou heard. The Gwich'in have relied on the Caribou for food, medicine, culture, clothing, and tools for centuries. Episcopalians should ask members of Congress to keep revenues from Arctic lease sales out of any budget reconciliation bill.
Oppose Budget Reconciliation: Food Stamp, Medicaid, drilling in the Arctic Refuge, TANF and other advocates are coordinating efforts now, suggesting that there will be a serious effort to defeat the reconciliation bill, and therefore kill the FY '06 budget in mid to late September. Program funding would then continue at previous levels through the Appropriations process. As a sign of the Episcopal Church's continuing distress about the injustices in the FY'06 budget, Episcopalians should ask members of Congress to oppose the FY '06 budget reconciliation bill if Congress does not respond to the concerns of the Church.