by Sarah Cronin
While we were distracted by the onslaught of executive orders President Trump pushed through during his first two weeks in office, legislators in Congress were busy quietly introducing legislation to bolster his top-down moves.
Here’s what you missed:
1. A House Panel Voted to Terminate the Election Assistance Commission
The House Administration Committee voted 6-3 in favor Republican Congressman Gregg Harper’s bill to terminate the Election Assistance Commission. The EAC, which was created in response to the contentious 2000 Florida election results as part of the Help America Vote Act, is a bipartisan commission that certifies voting machines and is responsible for making sure they cannot be hacked.
While this marks the fifth time Harper has presented the EAC termination bill, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today point to the suspect timing of the bill’s reintroduction — just days after Trump announced his intention to open an investigation into his own claims of voter fraud. Democrats have also raised concerns that the EAC is needed more than ever before given the highly publicized, albeit still unproven Russian hacking scare in December. Thirty-eight organizations, including the NAACP, League of Women Voters, and Common Cause signed a letter denouncing the panel’s vote. The bill is set to go to a full committee report, a stage only one in four bills succeeds in reaching, according to govtrack.us.
2. Legislation introduced to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency (or at least severely limit it)
This one-sentence bill introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R- FL) is the most direct attack on the EPA amid recent attempts to limit its scope and influence, including legislation presented by Rep. Gary Palmer in January that aims to ‘clarify’ and redirect the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gases by literally striking the phrase from legislation and replacing it with the neutralized term ‘air pollutant.’ The bills are consistent with the anti-climate change sentiment expressed in Republican Congressman Luetkemeyer’s bill from January, which would prohibit the contribution of any U.S. tax dollars to fund the U.N. Climate Change Act.
3. On the day of DeVos’ confirmation hearing, Rep. Massie introduced legislation to terminate the Department of Education altogether
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a one-sentence bill calling for the termination of the Department of Education on the same day controversial Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos was confirmed by an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Pence. In a press release, Massie explained his intention behind the bill, stating:
“Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development.”
While the bill brings to mind President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to abolish the Department of Education in 1985 — which failed amid a lack of Congressional support — the high levels of discontent following DeVos’ controversial appointment as Secretary of Education could translate into bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans alike who feel their schools would be better off without federal oversight. The bill currently has seven co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
4.Roe v. Wade’s protections threatened under Congressional avalanche of anti-abortion legislation
The Life at Conception Act, S. 231, and its companion House bill, H.R. 681, were reintroduced by Senator Rand Paul days after Trump’s Inauguration. The bills are being hailed by the Pro-Life Alliance as a “frontal attack” on Roe v. Wade. The legislation aims to establish that a fetus, or ‘pre-born person,’ is guaranteed equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the constitution. While there is debate about the extent to which the act could nullify the privacy protections afforded by Roe v. Wade, it would present additional considerations for any future court decisions related to abortion laws. If passed, the Life at Conception Act, combined with Trump’s nomination of reputedly pro-life Justice Neil Gorsuch, could provide the conditions needed for a successful Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade.
The reintroduction of The Life at Conception Act is in alignment with several other pieces of legislation proposed in January that would indirectly limit access to legal abortions. Chief among these is S. Res.15, in which Senator Mike Lee recommended the permanent establishment of Reagan’s ‘Mexico City Policy,’ a block on federal funding for non-governmental organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals. President Trump reinstated the policy by executive order just days later.
Additional pending legislative efforts include H.R. 692, a bill that would prohibit minors from crossing state lines to access abortions, H.R. 718, a bill that would criminalize “reckless disposal” of fetal remains, H.R. 354, a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, and H.R. 7, a bill to limit taxpayer funding for abortion providers, which has already passed in the House and is heading towards a vote in the Senate.
5. More stringent legislation on immigration and refugee resettlement
While attention focused on Trump’s travel ban, Republican lawmakers introduced a series of amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act that would result in more stringent visa and refugee vetting policies. S.180, introduced by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, would change the eligibility criteria for certain H1b and L1 work visas, making them no longer obtainable without a U.S. degree or equivalent.
S.211, or the “State Refugee Security Act,” introduced by Republican Senator Ted Cruz, would allow the governor of a state the ability to reject the settlement of any refugee in that state by default “unless there is adequate assurance that the alien does not present a security risk.”
H.R. 643, known as the Visa Overstay Enforcement Act, was introduced by Republican Representative Lou Barletta and would increase penalizations for overstaying visa terms. Under the proposed legislation, those who overstay their visas would face a fine and up to six months in jail with up to two years in jail for any subsequent offense.
There are additional efforts to mandate E-verify, the computerized government record system that confirms employees’ authorizations to work in the U.S. The bill, introduced by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, would also require that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) report anyone who receives a final “nonconfirmation” message — signifying that the employee is not authorized to work in the United States — to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
E-Verify has been criticized in the past as a faulty computerized mechanism for mass deportation. Still, it could be broadly mandated as the electronic iteration of Trump’s ‘build a wall’ immigration policy.
HOMELAND SECURITY & INCREASED VIGILANCE OVER “INSIDER THREATS”
6. The House approves nearly 20 Department of Homeland Security bills
Bills that passed include H.R. 505 to “strengthen accountability or deployment of border security technology,” and H.R. 612, which would establish a grant program to promote cooperative research between the U.S. and Israel on cybersecurity.
Among the bills that passed is also H.R. 666, which would establish an Insider Threat Program to identify “the threat that an insider will use his or her authorized access, wittingly or unwittingly, to do harm to the security of the United States, including damage to the United States through espionage, terrorism, the unauthorized disclosure of classified national security information, or through the loss or degradation of departmental resources or capabilities.”
The ‘insider threat’ description offered in H.R. 666 draws to mind cases of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who previously released sensitive information about the government. The act, which never mentions the word “whistleblower,” was passed along with two explicit whistleblower protective bills — H.R.914 and H.R. 67, a.k.a. the “Thoroughly Investigating Retaliation Against Whistleblowers Act.” The contradictory legislation suggests the DHS has a vested interest in maintaining the outside appearance of a pro-whistleblower stance, even as they devote more resources to identifying whistleblowers within the department.
7. The Legislative Battle to Expand vs. Limit President Trump’s access to Nuclear Weapons
- The House passed H.R. 590, a bill to foster civilian research and development of advanced nuclear energy technologies in an apparent fulfillment of the president’s previously expressed desire to “greatly strengthen and expand” U.S. nuclear capability.
- Alarmed, Democratic Senator Edward Markey and Congressman Ted W. Lieu quickly countered by introducing legislation to prohibit President Trump from launching a “first-use nuclear strike” without a declaration of war by Congress.
“It is a frightening reality that the U.S. now has a Commander-in-Chief who has demonstrated ignorance of the nuclear triad, stated his desire to be ‘unpredictable’ with nuclear weapons, and as President-elect was making sweeping statements about U.S. nuclear policy over Twitter,” Rep. Lieu said in a statement.
8. New bills on marijuana legalization, re-scheduling, and protection from seizure
Given that marijuana was joked to be ‘real winner’ of the 2016 Election, it seems only fitting that two marijuana bills would appear in the House on Inauguration Day. Republican Congressman Griffith Morgan introduced the two bills in succession. The first, H.R. 714, or “LUMMA,” would “provide for the legitimate use of medicinal marihuana in accordance with the laws of the various States.” LUMMA was followed by H.R. 715, or the “Compassionate Access Act,” which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and formally recommend to the DEA a rescheduling of marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug to another category. A key provision of H.R. 715 would exclude “cannabidiol” from the definition of “marijuana” and remove it from the CSA.
California Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Dana Rohrabacher also proposed separate bills that would protect residents in states where marijuana is legal from civil forfeiture of property and punishment for use and distribution, respectively. As Anti-Media reported, the legislation comes at a crucial moment of uncertainty regarding the future of federal drug policy and enforcement under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
While Trump has been busy eagerly flexing his executive power, a quiet power struggle has begun in Congress between legislators who aim to pass bills that reinforce the efforts of Trump’s administration and legislators frantically introducing bills in attempts to block the administration’s impact. As we head into month two of Trump’s presidency — and as some of these bills head into the next phase of debate — these power struggles will continue playing out, both on Twitter and in Congress.
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