Federal Issues Update
McConnell Triggers “Nuclear Option” Over Gorsuch Vote
Senate Democrats this week continued their efforts to filibuster the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. When it was evident that Senate Republicans did not have the 60 votes needed to end debate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) triggered the so-called “nuclear option.” The procedural move essentially changes the rules of the Senate to allow the confirmation process to move forward with a simple majority vote. It should be noted that Democrats employed the same tactic in 2013, lowering the number of senators needed to confirm executive branch nominees and lower court justices from 60 to 51. The final vote will occur Friday, when it is expected that Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed. Following the vote, lawmakers will begin a two-week congressional recess.
Lawmakers Finalize Letters in Support of Local Justice Programs
On April 4, Representatives Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Linda Sánchez (D-CA) finalized bipartisan correspondence to House Appropriations Committee leaders in support of the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). Thirty-three members of Congress, including 20 Californians, joined Representatives Gosar and Sánchez in requesting that the committee provide adequate funding for SCAAP as part of the fiscal year 2018 budget.
Also this week, letters were sent to House appropriators on the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The VOCA correspondence – spearheaded by Representatives Jim Costa (D-CA) and Ted Poe (R-TX) and signed by 65 lawmakers – asks appropriators to set the program’s spending cap at $2.7 billion, or the same level of funding that was recommended by the House Appropriations Committee for the current fiscal year. The VAWA letter, which was led by Representatives Gwen Moore (D-WI), Judy Chu (D-CA) and others, requests full funding of $589 million for VAWA programs in fiscal year 2018. A total of 127 members of the House signed the VAWA correspondence.
House Republicans Urge Appropriators to Bar Funding to Sanctuary Jurisdictions
Thirty-six House Republicans have written to the leaders of the House Commerce-Justice-Science and Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittees to urge them to include language in their respective fiscal year 2018 spending bills barring grant funding to so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.” Specifically, the letter urges appropriators to ensure that federal dollars are not provided to States or local governments that: A) are not in compliance with provisions of current law that prohibit government officials from restricting the exchange of information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of an individual that is being held for a crime (8 USC Section 1373); or, B) have policies in place that prohibit law enforcement officials from gathering information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any individual.
The aforementioned letter comes on the heels of recent statements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in which he reiterated the Trump administration’s pledge to crack down on sanctuary jurisdictions. To date, the Department of Justice has not released any specific guidance or policy regarding how it intends to deal with those jurisdictions that the Department deems are not in compliance with federal law.
Senate Hearing on FAA Reauthorization Focuses on Rural Air Service
On April 6, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held an oversight hearing to discuss perspectives on rural air service and the general aviation community. The discussion primarily focused on federal efforts to improve access and safety in small communities. In particular, members of the committee and invited witnesses highlighted the benefits of programs like Essential Air Services (EAS), the Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP), and other initiatives that could bolster rural air service. There also was considerable discussion about how to address the looming shortage of pilots.
This is the second in a series of hearings that the committee will be conducting on reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The current authorization expires on September 30, 2017.
New Cannabis Legislation Introduced in Congress
A number of cannabis-related measures have recently been introduced in Congress, some of which have bipartisan support. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) led the charge by introducing a series of bills that they view as the path to marijuana reform. One measure (S 777; HR 1823) would amend the tax code to allow state-legal cannabis businesses to take normal business deductions, a practice that is currently prohibited by law.
A second bill (S 780; HR 1824) is much more comprehensive and covers a broad range of issues at the federal level. Among other things, it would eliminate federal criminal penalties and civil asset forfeiture for individuals and businesses acting in compliance with state law. In addition, the legislation would improve access to banking services, bankruptcy protections, and medical research. It also would allow marijuana users to live in public housing and access federal student aid.
The third and final bill in the series (S 776) would legalize marijuana at the national level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. This is similar to legislation (HR 1841) – recently introduced by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) – which proposes to regulate marijuana in the same manner as alcohol. In doing so, the measure would move oversight authority away from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and instead house it within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
While Congress is unlikely to consider any of these proposals in the near future, it is clear that support continues to build for action at the federal level.