Legislation Passed in Congress Last Week

Last week was a big week for both the House and the Senate, as the two chambers each passed legislation with significant implications.

Below, we discuss the contents of each bill, as well as the case for praise or criticism.

For the People Act

The House passed the For the People Act, or H.R. 1, Wednesday night in a 220-210 party-line vote. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it is unlikely to gain Republican support and will, therefore, be subject to filibuster.

According to the text of the bill, H.R.1 is designed to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.”

The bill sets out to accomplish these aims by advancing the following provisions:

  • Require states to offer same-day and online voter registration for federal elections and permit voters to make changes to their registration online or at the polls
  • Allow voters to present a sworn, written statement to an election official under penalty of perjury in the absence of voter identification, unless the individual is a first-time voter who registered by mail
  • Require states to hold early voting for at least 15 days
  • Establish automatic voter registration amongst eligible citizens unless they choose to opt out
  • Make Election Day a federal holiday
  • Prohibit states from requiring an ID to vote by mail or requiring notarization or witnesses of voters’ signatures to cast an absentee ballot
  • Permit voters “to designate any person” to return their sealed absentee ballot and prevent states from putting a limit on how many ballots any person could return on behalf of others
  • Authorize 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote (though they would not be able to exercise that right until they turned 18)
  • Prohibit the practice of voter caging and restrict the practice of voter-roll purges by requiring states to obtain certain information prior to removal, prohibiting purges from taking place less than six months before an election, and requiring timely notification of any voter tagged for removal to offer them an opportunity to contest removal or seek reinstatement
  • Restore voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentence
  • Promote voting access for individuals with disabilities and for absent military and overseas voters
  • Improve election security by mandating the use of paper ballots and by allowing for inspection by the voter to identify potential errors
  • Require state officials to preserve paper ballots and conduct a hand count of ballots for recounts or audits
  • Require that the voting machines used in federal elections be manufactured in the United States
  • Effect campaign finance reform by establishing voluntary public financing for campaigns, funded by a small fee assessed on criminal and civil fines and penalties or settlements with banks and corporations that commit corporate malfeasance; imposing stricter limitations on foreign lobbying; requiring super PACs to disclose their donors; and restructuring the Federal Election Commission to reduce partisan gridlock
  • Require presidential and vice-presidential candidates to publicly disclose their previous 10 years of income tax returns
  • Require members of Congress to reimburse the Treasury for employment discrimination settlements to eliminate the use of taxpayer money
  • Establish rules of ethics binding on the Supreme Court
  • Bar inaugural committees from taking money from corporations or any contribution above $50,000 from individuals, and limit the use of these funds to inaugural events or charitable donations
  • Require states to use independent commissions of 15 members (five Republicans, five Democrats, and five independents) to draw congressional district lines based on “(1) population equality, (2) compliance with the Voting Rights Act, (3) compliance with additional racial requirements (no retrogression in, or dilution of, minorities’ electoral influence, including in coalition with other voters), (4) respect for political subdivisions and communities of interest, and (5) no undue advantage for any party”
  • Reduce the number of FEC commissioners from six to five and require that no more than two be members of the same political party

PRAISE

Recent polling shows that 77% of Democratic voters, 68% of independent voters, and 56% of Republican voters support the For the People Act, as it helps break down barriers to voting, establishing minimum standards that inhibit suppression.

And since the Brennan Center for Justice found that 33 states have introduced over 165 bills designed to restrict voting rights, legislation of this kind, which fortifies access to the ballot box, is seen as critical to our democracy.

Said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, “Our democracy is sacred, but it is fragile and under attack. We need the For the People Act to protect the right to vote and give power back to the people.”

CRITICISM

While the bill enjoys support among the majority of Americans, it is not without its critics. The measure has been called a “blatant power grab for Democrats,” and GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik said that it promotes “dangerous measures to indefinitely solidify [Democrats’] power in Washington.”

The changes, Republicans argue, do little to fix the “irregularities” seen in recent elections, potentially make it easier for bad actors to commit fraud, and infringe on states’ rights.

George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — named after the Black man killed by police officer Derek Chauvin last year — passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 220-212.

A similar version of the bill passed the House last summer but stalled in the Senate — an outcome likely to be repeated.

The key provisions of the act, designed to overhaul national policing standards, are as follows:

  • Grant subpoena power to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in connection with investigations into whether there has been a “pattern and practice” of bias or misconduct on the part of police departments
  • Provide grants to state attorneys general to “create an independent process to investigate misconduct or excessive use of force”
  • Create a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions
  • Restrict the application of the qualified immunity doctrine for local and state officers
  • Change the mens rea element of 18 U.S.C. § 242 (the federal criminal offense frequently used to prosecute police misconduct) from “willfully” to “knowingly or with reckless disregard”
  • Require federal uniformed police officers to wear body cameras and marked federal police vehicles to be equipped with dashboard cameras, and require state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to ensure their use
  • Restrict the transfer of military equipment to police
  • Require state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to adopt anti-discrimination policies and training programs
  • Prohibit federal police officers and state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding from using chokeholds or carotid holds
  • Prohibit no-knock warrants in federal drug investigations, and provide incentives to states to enact similar prohibitions
  • Change the threshold for the permissible use of force by federal law enforcement officers from “reasonableness” to only when “necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury”
  • Mandate that federal officers attempt de-escalation, using deadly force only as a last resort
  • Condition federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies on the adoption of similar de-escalation and use-of-force policies
  • Require state and local law enforcement agencies to turn over data on use of force broken down by race, gender, disability, religion, and age
  • Redirect funding to community-based policing programs

PRAISE

Endorsed by more than 100 civil rights groups, the bill has been lauded as a significant step “to protect people and ensure accountability against police violence.”

Ending qualified immunity, for example, would make it easier to pursue claims of police misconduct. A May 2020 Reuters investigation found that the doctrine makes it difficult to hold officers accountable, even in the face of constitutional violations.

“To make our communities safe, we must begin by rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the people they are entrusted to serve and protect,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “We cannot rebuild that trust if we do not hold police officers accountable for abuses of power and tackle systemic misconduct – and systemic racism – in police departments.”

Said Rep. Karen Bass, the bill’s original sponsor, “Never again should an unarmed individual be murdered or brutalized by someone who is supposed to serve and protect them. Never again should the world be subject to witnessing what we saw happen to George Floyd in the streets in Minnesota.”

CRITICISM

Republicans argue that ending qualified immunity would open departments up to a barrage of lawsuits and would prohibit police from doing their jobs effectively. GOP Rep. Carlos Gimenez said that the bill would “weaken and possibly destroy our community’s police forces.”

Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who introduced his own police reform bill in the Senate, called the House version “partisan,” and the “National Review” claimed that its provisions would pressure law enforcement officers “to bend to ideological demands while ignoring on-the-ground realities.”

Rep. Ron Kind, one of two Democrats to vote against the bill, said in a statement, “We … need to ensure that good officers are not subjected to frivolous lawsuits, which may force them to leave their profession and make the recruitment of good people into law enforcement more difficult.”

Said Jared Golden, the other Democrat to oppose, “Because I understand what it is like to make split-second, life-and-death decisions under pressure, and out of respect for the difficult decisions confronting law enforcement officers in the line of duty, I will not support this legislation today. Eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement officers could result in unintended consequences for both individual law enforcement officers and the profession as a whole.”

American Rescue Plan

The Senate passed their version of the American Rescue Plan Saturday in a 50-49 party-line vote.

Sen. Dan Sullivan was absent due to the death of his father-in-law, making a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris unnecessary.

The vote followed a marathon, all-night vote-a-rama that lasted more than 25 hours, which was earlier preceded by a 10-hour reading of the 628-page bill, made necessary by an objection by Sen. Ron Johnson designed to delay the proceedings.

The Senate bill largely mirrors the bill passed in the House with a few notable exceptions.

For one, the Senate bill does not contain the $15 minimum wage hike that the House bill did. Sen. Bernie Sanders had attempted to insert the wage increase into the bill via amendment — despite the Senate parliamentarian ruling that it be excluded — but failed to amass the 60 votes required to waive the Budget Act, with all Republicans voting in opposition along with one independent and seven Democrats.

Another change of note: Unemployment insurance benefits will be lowered to $300 per week, down from the $400 passed in the House. The aid, however, will extend through Sept. 6 — roughly a week longer than the House’s Aug. 29 expiration — and the first $10,200 will be nontaxable for households with incomes under $150,000.

And while Sen. Lisa Murkowski ultimately voted against the bill, she worked with Sen. Manchin on an amendment that will redirect roughly $800 million in funding toward assistance for homeless children, which the Senate adopted by voice vote.

The Senate also added a provision that would make student loan forgiveness passed between Dec 31, 2020 and Jan 1, 2026 tax-free.

With these changes recorded, the bill will now revert to the House, where it is expected to pass in a final vote Wednesday.

PRAISE

President Biden said in February, “The biggest risk is not going too big, it’s if we go too small.  We’ve been here before.  When this nation hit the Great Recession that Barack and I inherited in 2009, I was asked to lead the effort on the economic Recovery Act to get it passed.  It was a big recovery package, roughly $800 billion.  I did everything I could to get it passed, including getting three Republicans to change their votes and vote for it. 

But it wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t quite big enough.  It stemmed the crisis, but the recovery could have been faster and even bigger.  Today, we need an answer that meets the challenge of this crisis, not one that falls short.”

Indeed, while our economic recovery has been faster than initially expected, economists suspect that the last relief package is at least partly responsible for the acceleration. And we have yet to see a sustained rebound in unemployment or labor force participation.

As labor economist Julia Pollak said ahead of the release of February’s jobs report, hiring figures last month remain “disappointing” and “not consistent with a robust recovery.”

Said White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, “Let’s put this jobs number in perspective. One, we are 9.5 million jobs behind where we were a year ago, that’s a bigger jobs hole than any point in the Great Recession. Number two, the unemployment rate, the measured unemployment rate, is 6.2%, but that doesn’t capture the fact that we’ve seen historic reductions in the labor force.”

The American Rescue Plan is expected to address and mitigate these realities.

CRITICISM

While most agree that further relief is needed, the American Rescue Plan has been criticized as being wasteful, bloated, and fiscally imprudent.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected this week that the relief package will add $1.862 trillion to the national deficit over 10 years, with the bulk of the spending occurring in fiscal year 2021. And aside from the impact to the debt and deficit, some economists worry that the bill will lead to economic overheating and a spike in inflation and market interest rates.

Other critics see the bill as an abuse of crisis — the opportunistic leveraging of a national emergency to expand government.

“This isn’t a pandemic rescue package,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s a parade of left-wing pet projects that they are ramming through during a pandemic.”

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