Government Affairs and Advocacy

Dec. 5 Federal Update: Midterm Lame-Duck Legislative Efforts Intensify

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December 5, 2022

Negotiations over the fiscal year 2023 budget are heating up during the lame-duck session as the self-imposed deadline of Dec. 16 draws ever closer. In the fall, Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the federal government until mid-December, giving elected officials time to negotiate until after the midterm elections. One of the main sticking points is the debt limit. Republicans want to tie raising the debt limit to entitlement reform, which President Joe Biden vehemently opposes. Another pressure point is a potential bipartisan tax deal to include certain tax breaks for businesses while extending tax breaks for working families, like the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The potential deal would not include the version of the CTC from the American Rescue Plan, which provided monthly installments to families with children. However, it would provide expanded tax relief to families come tax time.

The social sector is also pushing for the inclusion of the Universal Charitable Deduction (UCD) in the end-of-year tax bill. The UCD, implemented for the first time in 2020 and expired last year, provided a $300 above-the-line deduction that encouraged more giving to charitable organizations. After a full year of bipartisan talks and hearings, Senate negotiators are also putting forward mental health proposals in light of the increase of suicides and drug overdoses in recent years. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.) have endorsed the Resilience, Investment, Support, and Expansion (RISE) from Trauma Act, which would connect different entities in communities to increase awareness of trauma and generate strategies around prevention, intervention, and treatment for children and families. Social Current has publicly supported both the UCD extension and the RISE from Trauma Act, and we will keep you updated as the negotiations progress.

Midterms Create New Balance of Power in Congress

The vote counting continues following the midterm elections last month, but the balance of power in Congress is decided. As of the end of November, Republicans had won 222 seats to the Democrats 213 in the House of Representatives, with two seats still waiting to be called. In the Senate, Democrats had won 50 hearts and the Republicans 49, with the runoff in Georgia still to come on Dec. 6. With Republicans gaining control of the House and Democrats retaining power in the Senate, many commentators predict two years of bickering and political brinksmanship. While leadership in the parties will remain the same in the Senate, both parties in the House have been undergoing internal debates about who will lead their caucuses. Democrats voted for a generational change in leadership by appointing Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) as party leader, replacing Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after 20 years as leader of the House Democrats. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), current House Minority Leader, is angling for Speaker of the House in the new Congress, though it is unclear at this moment whether he will earn enough votes in his caucus to gain that title. To set a productive tone for the new Congress, President Biden met with the leaders of both parties last week to hash out priorities for the lame-duck session.

Pause on Student Loan Payments Extended Again

After a U.S. District Judge rendered President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program unconstitutional, the Department of Education (DOE) requested a federal appeals court to lift the hold on the program, which was denied on Thursday. The administration says almost half of eligible borrowers have applied, and over 16 million applications have been approved. Nevertheless, the program’s fate will have to wait for a decision by the Supreme Court, which could take months. In response to these setbacks in court, the DOE has extended the pause on student loan payments, which has been in effect since the beginning of the pandemic and extended multiple times after that. The administration argues it is unfair to make borrowers make payments on loans that will ultimately be forgiven, partially or in full. The DOE says it will end the pause 60 days after the Supreme Court makes a decision, or by Sept. 1 of next year, whichever comes first.

USDA Proposes New Rules for WIC Program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced proposed changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC food packages supplement the diets of mothers and newborns with healthy foods and beverages that benefit maternal and childhood health. The new changes would increase the size of the food packages, give state agencies more flexibility to accommodate cultural preferences and dietary needs, and provide increased choice to the 6 million moms, babies, and young children enrolled in WIC. Some changes include increased allowance for fruits and vegetables (four times more than previously) and new items, like quinoa, soy-based yogurts, canned fish, and canned beans. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, informed USDA’s decision to propose these science-driven changes to the WIC program.

Subcommittee Hearing on the Student Mental Health Crisis

The Subcommittee on Children and Families on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, hosted a hearing last Wednesday called “Caring for Our Kids: Supporting Mental Health in the Transition from High School to College.” The hearing stressed the often-overlooked effectiveness of mental health services and the importance of providing these services to young adolescents, especially considering the national mental health crisis affecting teens. The first witness, Sharon Hoover of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told policymakers to focus on three ideas: Investing in prevention by creating safe environments in families and schools, establishing comprehensive school mental health systems, and providing students with high school-to-college transition skills. Curtis Wright, vice president of student affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black and Catholic institution, spoke about the importance of creating a sense of safety on campus, especially in light of the bomb threats that have impacted historically black colleges and universities this year. Ashley Weiss, director of medical student education in psychiatry at Tulane University, discussed the hidden pandemic of severe psychiatric disorders like psychosis. Citing national statistics to shed light on a local university, she explained 800 students at George Washington University likely experience psychosis annually and do not receive care for over a year. The final witness, Brooklyn Williams, a high school senior in Pittsburgh, described her mental health struggles after her mother passed away from breast cancer. These powerful testimonies build momentum toward Congress enacting policies to address the mental health crisis affecting America’s teenagers, hopefully as soon as possible.

New AFCARS Data Shows Fewer Children in Foster Care in 2021

A new report from the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) says the number of children in foster care decreased for the fourth year, and the number of children adopted from foster care decreased for the second consecutive year. The data was pulled from the annual Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which showed that the foster care population declined from 407,000 at the end of fiscal year 2020 to 391,000 at the end of fiscal year 2021. ACF says these decreases correspond with the department’s focus on keeping families together and promoting kinship care. As ACF discusses policy options with states, family preservation and kinship care have been priorities.

New Grants for Mental Health from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced over $100 million in funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) for emergency preparedness, crisis response, and expansion of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The BSCA passed earlier this year following the school shooting tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. $59.4 million will be disbursed to states through the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant program. SAMHSA recommended to the states that these funds be used for mental health emergency preparedness and response plans, creating mobile crisis teams, and providing mental health training to providers, among other things. Another $50 million will go toward standing up the 988 hotline, developing response capacity, diversifying accessible languages, and increasing marketing and awareness around the hotline.

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