As Congress prepares to return this fall, we wanted to give you an update on some of the issues that we will continue to be watching and that you can expect to see in future EPPN Alerts.
- Debt Ceiling/Budget Agreement: On August 2, Congress passed and the President signed a debt ceiling/budget agreement that requires up to $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction and a maximum $2.4 trillion increase in the debt limit in two stages. It immediately produces $917 billion in savings through FY 2021 by capping discretionary spending each year, and provides for a $900 billion increase in the debt ceiling. The agreement also creates a 12-member joint congressional committee to develop a plan for an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction that Congress would vote on in December. If no cuts are approved by Congress, the deal would trigger across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending over 10 years.
- Appropriations: An omnibus, stop-gap spending measure is likely to be negotiated this fall because Congress will not pass all of the appropriations measures by October 1. So far, the House has passed six of its annual spending bills with nine bills moving through the Appropriations Committee, while the Senate has passed only one measure and no others have been approved by appropriators.
- The Environment: On July 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2354, the Energy and Water/Interior Appropriations bill, which includes the following detrimental riders: requiring the EPA to stop all work on limiting life-threatening carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, refineries and other large sources; requiring the EPA to stop all work to update clean air standards for dangerous smog, soot and other air pollution if so-called "background" levels of that pollution anywhere in the country are occasionally higher than the standards needed to protect public health; and allowing oil companies to exempt parts of their massive offshore drilling operations and support vessels from Clean Air Act requirements designed to protect our health and our environment.
- Food Programs: On July 16, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2112, the Agriculture Appropriations bill, which adds $147 million to Women, Infants and Children (WIC), bringing the funding level to $6.05 billion. However, even with this significant increase, the bill is still well below the level needed to serve all eligible applicants and thousands of persons will still be unserved. Funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which serves predominantly low-income seniors, is $138.5 million. This is $38 million (22%) below the 2012 request and $37 million (21%) below 2011. The bill provides $1.040 billion for the Food for Peace program, a reduction of $650 million (38%) from the 2012 request and $457 million (31%) from the 2011 level. There is concern that the bill would interfere with FDA's regulatory authority as the bill includes language that rewrites the statutory and regulatory standards protecting our food and medical products and regulating tobacco products.
The divisions between the House and Senate on immigration issues have dimmed the prospect of immigration reform in the near future. While in the Senate a group of Democratic Senators introduced the "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011," S. 1251 the House continues to move forward more restrictive and punitive bills. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX-21) introduced H.R. 1932, the Keep Our Communities Safe Act of 2011 which would indefinitely detain thousands of immigrants, including asylum seekers and victims of torture and the "Hinder the Administration's Legalization Temptation" Act (HALT Act), H.R. 2497 which would take the unprecedented step of suspending several immigration law provisions relating to humanitarian relief and reduce prosecutorial discretion.
Some positive movement has come from the administration. The Department of Homeland Security announced that it will implement an agency-wide expansion of prosecutorial discretion guidelines with the goal of allowing immigration officials to focus their enforcement efforts on targeting dangerous criminals. In addition, a joint committee will be created with the Department of Justice to review nearly 300,000 cases currently in removal proceedings and determine which cases are low priority and can be administratively closed.
- International Assistance Funds: The Budget Control Act of 2011 negotiated by President Obama and the Congress could cause severe cuts to U.S. foreign assistance programs and poverty-focused development and humanitarian assistance. These are the funds that allow the United States to provide essential support in response to deadly disasters like the current devastating drought in the Horn of Africa. They currently represent a small fraction (0.6%) of the federal budget, and slashing them will do very little to address the root causes of the U.S. budget deficit. Yet in the next few weeks, these funds will face the prospect of the deepest cuts in decades, as Congress finalizes the FY12 spending levels for State and Foreign Operations and as the Joint Select "Super Committee" meets to allocate spending for the next 10 years. We must protect international assistance funds from absorbing further cuts that would cost countless lives amongst the world's most vulnerable communities.
- Sudan: Violence continues in the disputed oil-rich border regions between Sudan and the newly independent South Sudan. Human rights groups have located two new mass grave sites in the contested South Kordofan region, and an estimated 200,000 people have been killed or displaced from the region. Sudan's president Omar Hassan Al-Bashir has failed to honor his declared two-week cease fire. The U.S. State Department continues to press for a truce in the region, but stronger international action is needed to prevent the dire humanitarian situation from deteriorating further. The Episcopal Church's Executive Council has urged the United States to maintain sanctions against the Government of Sudan until they cease their violence and abuse, demand the cessation of all hostilities and withdrawal of armed forces from Abyei and the Nuba Mountains, and urge for strong action by the United Nations to hold the Government of Sudan accountable for its disregard of treaty obligations and human rights standards.