Federal Issues Update
June 28, 2018
For the second time in less than a week, members of the House voted to defeat legislation aimed at reforming the country’s immigration system. The June 27 vote – in which more than 100 Republicans joined every Democrat to reject the GOP leadership-backed bill – follows last week’s defeat of a more conservative-leaning proposal (HR 4760).
The leadership measure, entitled the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 (HR 6136), largely adheres to President Trump’s “four pillars” of immigration reform. Specifically, the legislation includes provisions that would: provide Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients with a pathway to citizenship; eliminate the diversity visa lottery program; provide direct funding for the border wall; and, limit family-based immigration.
HR 6136 also includes language addressing the issue of family separation. Specifically, the bill includes a section entitled “Clarification of Standards for Family Detention,” which would essentially overrule a previous court settlement that limits the amount of time that migrant children can be detained. The settlement, known as the Flores Agreement, essentially says that the federal government cannot hold children, accompanied or unaccompanied, for more than 20 days. The effect of failed House bill would be to allow the federal government to detain children accompanied by their parents for an indefinite amount of time while the family’s immigration case is pending.
It should be noted that the defeat of HR 6136 potentially raises the prospects that a more narrow bill addressing the issue of family separation will be taken up by Congress. Action on such legislation would occur in spite of President Trump’s recent executive order (EO) terminating his administration’s policy of separating families who cross the border illegally. While the EO calls for an end to the White House’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy, there is widespread agreement among policymakers that Congress must act to codify appropriate protections for migrant children who are detained at the border.
For her part, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has been leading the legislative effort in the upper chamber to address the family separation issue. The senator’s bill, entitled the Keep Families Together Act (S 3036), is supported by every Senate Democrat.
Under the Feinstein measure, federal officials would generally be barred from removing a child from his or her parents or legal guardian at the border. A child could only be separated from his/her family if: a state court – or state or county child welfare agency – were to determine that the action would be in the best interest of the child; an appropriate federal agency official were to determine the child is the victim of trafficking; or, it is determined that there is a strong likelihood that the adult is not the parent or legal guardian of the child.
Critics of S 3036 charge that the legislation would result in a return to a “catch-and-release” policy as it pertains to migrant families. As an alternative to the Feinstein bill, a group of Republican senators have crafted their own measure that would allow minors under the age 18 to remain with their families pending the outcome of their immigration proceedings. The bill (S 3093) also would authorize 225 new immigration law judges and would require the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to prioritize resolving the cases of children and families in family residential centers.
On June 27, the Department of the Interior announced that it will distribute $552.8 million to over 1,900 local governments under the Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) program. The ensuing PILT distribution represents the largest overall award amount in the history of the program. PILT payments to local governments help offset losses in tax revenues due to the presence of tax-exempt federal land in their jurisdictions. The funding allows counties to provide essential public services on these lands, including solid waste disposal, law enforcement, search and rescue operations, environmental compliance, firefighting, and other important community services.
In all, California counties will receive over $60 million this year, up from $48.3 million in fiscal year 2017. Individual California county funding amounts can be accessed here.
The Senate this week voted 86-5 to approve a three-bill spending package (HR 5895) that would provide fiscal year 2019 funding for Energy and Water Development (E&W), Legislative Branch, and Military-Veterans Affairs (MilCon). The Energy and Water title of the legislation funds the Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and several independent agencies.
All told, HR 5895 would provide $43.77 billion in fiscal year 2019, or $566 million above the fiscal year 2018 enacted level and $7.24 billion above President Trump’s budget blueprint. Notably, the Army Corps would see its budget increase by $100 million, while an additional $8.5 million would be available for the Bureau of Reclamation.
In addition, the bill includes $134 million for water storage projects authorized in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act. With regard to California, the federal funds could be used for the following projects: design and pre-construction work on the Shasta Reservoir project; feasibility study completions for the Sites Reservoir and the Temperance Flat Reservoir; and, initiation of a feasibility study to address subsidence on the Friant Kern Canal.
The legislation does not include some of the more controversial policy riders that were included in the House bill. However, it does include language that would allow doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend medical cannabis to qualified veterans. The provision also would protect veterans from being denied VA benefits for participating in a state-legal cannabis program. This provision has been approved by both the House and Senate in previous years; however, it has never been included in a final bill.
It should be noted that these are the first fiscal year 2018 appropriations measures to be approved by the full Senate. For its part, the Appropriations Committee has cleared the remaining nine spending bills, including: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), Interior and Environment, Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD), Financial Services and General Government, State-Foreign Operations, Labor-Health and Human Services (LHHS), Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Across Capitol Hill, the House has successfully passed its version of the combined E&W-Legislative Branch-MilCon appropriations measure, as well as the Defense spending bill for fiscal year 2019. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee has approved all but two funding measures (Labor-HHS and Defense).
The full Senate began debate this week on a bipartisan Farm Bill reauthorization measure (S 3042). The legislation would renew various expiring commodity, trade, rural development, agricultural research, and food and nutrition programs.
Unlike its House counterpart (HR 2), the Senate Farm Bill does not include controversial new work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/CalFRESH) recipients. Pursuant to the House legislation, which was cleared by the lower chamber on June 21, all able-bodied adults without children under age six would be required to work at least 20 hours per week and/or be engaged in a work-related program. The first failure to do so for more than one month would result in the loss of SNAP benefits for one year. A second failure would result in denial of benefits for three years.
The House bill also would restrict categorical eligibility for SNAP to only those individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance or other TANF supports, such as child care. Currently, there are other ways of becoming eligible for SNAP, such as receiving aid through a state assistance program or Supplemental Security Income.
Additionally, the House-passed measure would effectively eliminate the use of the standard utility disallowance and instead would require SNAP participants to submit utility bills and would count any Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits when determining SNAP benefits. Given the bill’s work-centric focus, the measure would nearly triple the amount of funding dedicated to SNAP Employment and Training programs.
Senate Republican and Democratic leaders have been clear that they intend to pass a Farm Bill that rejects the SNAP cuts proposed by the House. A final floor vote on the legislation is expected to occur before the Senate adjourns for its week-long Independence Day recess.