Today, April 29, marks the 100th day of the Obama Administration. This moment provides an opportunity to reflect on the President and Congress’s progress and, more importantly, the direction of the nation. So far, the news is good: Americans are feeling more confident than they have been in years about the direction in which our country is heading.
Despite the many troubles inherited from the Bush Administration – a severe economic recession, skyrocketing costs for basic needs, cynicism about government, loss of respect around the world, and two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans believe in President Obama’s ability to mobilize the nation to solve our current challenges and get the nation moving in the right direction again. Senate Democrats couldn’t agree more.
Marking one of the most productive starts to a new Congress, the 111th Congress has already worked with President Obama to pass legislation to stabilize the economy; create and save 3.5 million; protect workers from pay discrimination; provide health care for children in need; invest in health care, energy, and education; protect the American wilderness; and expand national service. And with today’s passage of the Budget Resolution, we have laid the ground work for health care reform, middle-class tax relief, educational and workforce investments, and energy independence – all essential components of long-term economic recovery.
In the coming weeks and months, we will work to enact final passage on legislation to combat corporate and mortgage fraud; and pass legislation to:
· stabilize the housing market and prevent unnecessary foreclosures;
· make health care more affordable;
· reform the regulatory system;
· improve education;
· support our nation’s troops and veterans;
· invest in alternative energy; and
· end abusive credit card practices.
The American people can count on Senate Democrats to continue to work with the President, the House, and, if they are willing, our Republican colleagues to advance their priorities, move the economy from recession to recovery, and get our nation back on the path to prosperity.
What a Difference 100 Days Makes
According to the Associated Press, since December 2008, the percentage of Americans who believe the country is headed in the right direction has increased 16 percentage points to 48 percent. The percentage of hopeful Americans has increased a whopping 31 percentage points since October 2008, a month before President Obama was elected and Democrats gained meaningful majorities in the House and Senate.
The American people’s approval of Congress and the President has also increased. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe President Obama is doing a good job, Congress’s overall approval rating has increased by 14 percentage points since December, and far more Americans approve of the Democratic approach to improving the economy than the Republican approach. (Associated Press-GfK Poll (April 16-20, 2009), available here.)
Democrats are Working to Strengthen the Economy and Reinvest in America
Senate Democrats passed an economic recovery package that will get the American economy working again. Over the last eight years, life for millions of American families has grown less affordable and less secure. Americans have suffered from lower wages, fewer jobs, declining home values, foreclosures, and skyrocketing costs for basic necessities like gas, health care, and college tuition. Years of misguided fiscal policies and irresponsible regulatory failures have contributed to a financial meltdown that is crippling the national and global economy and threatening the American Dream for people throughout the country. Never before has the need for a strong economic recovery package been as urgent or as clear.
On February 13, 2009, by a supermajority vote of 60, the Senatesent the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R.1) to President Obama for signature. This urgently-needed legislation will create new jobs and save those that may be lost; cut taxes for the middle class; and invest in America’s future. This legislation will also provide transparency and accountability to guarantee that all taxpayer money is invested responsibly.
Specifically, the economic recovery legislation will create and maintain jobs through targeted funding of infrastructure, renewable energy and other job-intensive projects, increased nutrition assistance, and broad-based tax relief. The legislation provides incentives for businesses to create and retain jobs, particularly in the green energy sector; aid to states in fiscal crisis; help with health care for workers and struggling families; job-creating investments in health care; and expanded unemployment benefits.
The bill was signed into law on February 17 (P.L. 111-5).
Congressional Democrats approved a fiscally-responsible budget that addresses the economic crisis that we inherited and lays a new foundation for our nation’s economy. On April 29, the Senate approved the Conference Report to the Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Resolution (S.Con.Res.13). This budget addresses the fiscal and economic crises that we have inherited and returns the country to a sound fiscal course by cutting the federal budget deficit in half by 2012 and by two-thirds by 2014 – bringing the deficit down to three percent of GDP. The Democratic budget:
· Preserves major priorities in President Obama’s budget proposal with strategic investments in energy, education, and health care – investments needed to restore our crumbling economy and put the country in a position to remain globally competitive. The budget:
o Promotes energy independence, building on the energy initiatives in the economic recovery package (P.L. 111-5) with investments in energy efficiency and clean energy;
o Makes investments in education and training programs that will help our economic growth and build a highly-skilled workforce to compete in the global marketplace; and
o Provides for affordable health care by including a deficit-neutral reserve fund for a major health reform initiatives;
· Provides tax relief for the Middle Class, with $764 billion in tax cuts for individuals and families over the next five years. These cuts include an extension of 2001 and 2003 income tax directed at individuals and families with incomes under $250,000; and allows for extension of the Making Work Pay tax cut for 95 percent of American workers; and
· Supports our troops and accounts for war costs, matching President Obama’s core defense budget and the President’s request for additional war costs. The budget also accurately represents costs like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress funded critical federal government programs for Fiscal Year 2009.
On March 11, 2009, theOmnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 (H.R.1105) was presented to President Obama for signature into law (P.L. 111-8). House and Senate Democrats were able to complete important work blocked by Republicans last year to provide the resources, guidance, and new initiatives for federal government programs in Fiscal Year 2009, at a time when they are so desperately needed. This appropriations measure contained nine bills that are essential to keeping the federal government working to enhance the health, safety, and economic security of the American people.
The Omnibus included critical commitments to:
Ensure our economic security with investments in:
· Job-creating highway projects through the Department of Transportation;
· Reemployment and retraining services to millions of unemployed and otherwise vulnerable Americans through the Department of Labor;
· Help for struggling homeowners through the Federal Housing Administration, Housing and Counseling Assistanceprogram, and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation;
· Community and economic development grants to help communities weather and recover from the current economic storm though the Department of Housing and Urban Development;
· Increased investments in more energy efficient vehicles and buildings as well as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy sources through the Department of Energy; and
· Vigorous enforcement of securities laws to help bolster the integrity of the financial markets through the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Ensure educational excellence and competition in the global economy with investments in:
· The Pell Grant program, which helps seven million low- and middle-income families pay for college and vocational training through the Department of Education. The Omnibus provides $17.3 billion for the Pell Grant program, an increase of $3.1 billion above 2008, with a $5,350 maximum award amount. These funds will assist seven million students with the costs of higher education and will help 1.4 million students attend school with $1.9 billion in funding for federal supplemental educational opportunity grants, federal work study, Perkins Loans, and the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership program;
· Assistance for Students with Disabilities, providing $11.5 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which helps ensure that all children with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate public education;
· Grants for disadvantaged students, with $14.5 billion, a $594 million increase, for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides resources to local school districts to help disadvantaged students succeed academically. The Omnibus also provides $546 million, an increase of $54 million, for school improvement grants to help turn around struggling schools;
· Head Start, a highly-successful federal-to-local grant program established in 1965, which provides early childhood education and services, including health, nutrition, and social and behavioral development for low-income preschool children and their families. The Omnibus provides $7.1 billion for this proven program, an increase of $235 million over 2008, to ensure that 900,000 low-income children have access to high quality preschool services; and
· Afterschool programs, providing $1.1 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers to help ensure students have a safe and supervised environment before the school day begins and after it ends. This funding will serve 1.7 million children.
Ensure our health with investments in:
· Lifesaving research into diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Omnibus provides $30.3 billion,$938 million above Fiscal Year 2008, to the 27 Institutes and Centers at the NIH to fund research into diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes;
· Health care services to nearly 470,000 uninsured Americans through Community Health Centers. The Omnibus provides $2.2 billion for Community Health Centers, including migrant health center, and health care centers for the homeless;
· Health Promotion Programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Omnibus provides $6.7 billion for public health programs that promote health behaviors, prevent disease, investigate health problems and prepare for emerging health threats;
· High Risk Insurance Pools to provide affordable health coverage though state-sponsored health insurance plans to those denied coverage, usually because of pre-existing medical conditions. The Omnibus includes $75 million to states for these plans, which insure nearly 200,000 individuals;
· Outreach to Seniors Eligible for Medicare, by providing $45 million, a $6 million increase above 2008, to help seniors, including the 40 million Americans already enrolled in the program, understand which Medicare benefits are available to them.
· Small, rural hospitals and health care networks for more than 775,000 rural residents in underserved communities through the Department of Health and Human Services. The Omnibus provides $289 million to support more than 1,200 small hospitals in rural, underserved communities;
· Training for health professionals, through a $842 million investment in Health Professions Training programs. This funding will help train physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel, to help improve access to critical health care services;
· Cancer screening, with a new $25 million national program to provide colorectal cancer screening and diagnostic follow-up care. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that if every American over age 50 were regularly screened, 60 percent of the 55,000 annual deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented; and
· Combating autism by providing full funding of the Combating Autism Act with $63.4 million for prevention of autism and support for families affected by autism and related disorders.
Ensure our safety with investments in:
· New reforms in place to make children’s products safer through the Consumer Product Safety Commission;
· Food and medical product safety inspections through the Food and Drug Administration.;
· Aviation safety and air traffic organization through the Federal Aviation Administration;
· Workplace safety standard enhancements and enforcement through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration;
· Quarantine stations at ports of entry around the country through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
· Agents to ferret out drug producers and traffickers through the Drug Enforcement Agency; and
· Intelligence analysts and other professionals fighting crime and terrorism in the United States through the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Ensure global health and our national security with investments in:
· Critical diplomatic operations, including funding 500 additional positions to fill vacancies in the Foreign and Civil Service at the Department of State;
· Worldwide embassy security protection to ensure that U.S. personnel are safe and secure;
· Lifesaving initiatives for international HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care as well as global programs to fight malaria and tuberculosis, and improve maternal and child health;
· Humanitarian assistance to help displaced people around the world, avert famines, and provide critical assistance during natural disasters; and
· Peacekeeping activities around the world, including in Sudan, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, and Lebanon.
Democrats are Working to Improve and Expand Health Care
Congress overwhelmingly approved critical legislation to renew and expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). For the past twelve years, CHIP has played a crucial role in helping to reduce the rate of uninsured children from lower-income families. The program was set to expire in March 2009. Despite overwhelming bipartisan support for similar legislation passed by the Senate and House in the 110th Congress, President Bush twice vetoed bills to expand the program. After two years of hard work by Democrats to improve and expand health care for children, in February, the 111th Congress passed and the President signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (S.275), abipartisan bill that authorizes $32.8 billion in new funding for CHIP to provide quality health care coverage for almost 11 million children. The legislation will allow 6.7 million children to continue to receive health care coverage and extend coverage to 4.1 million children who are currently uninsured. The program has been renewed through Fiscal Year 2013. This legislation provides a new option to states to remove the 5-year waiting period for legal immigrant children and pregnant women, providing those who qualify with immediate access to Medicaid and CHIP.
The CHIP legislation will also:
· Increase and target funding for states facing budget deficits;
· Improve state tools for outreach and enrollment;
· Provide bonus payments to states enrolling the lowest-income children;
· Improve the quality of health care for low-income children;
· Help reduce racial and ethnic disparities in coverage and quality;
· Prioritize children’s coverage in CHIP by moving childless adults out of CHIP and prohibiting additional adult coverage in CHIP;
· Improve access to critical benefits such as dental coverage;
· Reduce administrative barriers to enrollment, including the option for states to use an applicant’s Social Security Number (SSN) to confirm eligibility for Medicaid or CHIP;
· Improve access to private coverage options through new premium assistance rules; and
· Maintain state flexibility to set eligibility levels for the program based on the cost of living in each state.
On January 29, 2009, the Senate passed the legislationby a vote of 66 to 32. The bill (assigned H.R.2, but with the text of S.275) was agreed to in the House on February 4, 2009. The President signed this legislation into law on February 4, 2009 (P.L. 111-3).
Democrats are Working to Advance Justice and Enforce the Laws of the United States
Senate Democrats passed legislation to improve law enforcement’s ability to combat financial and mortgage fraud. After 9/11, the Bush Administration shifted resources away from the investigation of financial fraud, leaving law enforcement under-manned and under-funded when corporate and mortgage fraud were on the rise, due in part to lax regulation by the Administration and Republican Congress of the housing and banking industries.
As a result, thousands of fraud allegations went unexamined and many instances of fraud went unchecked. More than 65,000 suspicious activity reports were filed alleging mortgage fraud in 2008, compared with nearly 4,700 in 2001, nearly 13 times as much. This fraud ultimately contributed to the global economic crisis that is threatening the financial health of our nation and the security of American families today. (Senate Judiciary Committee (referencing the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network), available here and here.)
On April 28, 2009, the Senate passed the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 209 (S.386) to enhance, strengthen, and rebuild the government’s ability to investigate and prosecute the increasing instances of mortgage and corporate fraud. Specifically, FERA would:
· Authorize more than $260 million per year in Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011 to hire hundreds of additional prosecutors, agents, and staff to conduct investigations and prosecutions of financial fraud at the Department of Justice, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S Secret Service, the Office of Inspector General for the Housing and Urban Development Department, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Office of the Inspector General for the SEC;
· Improve and modernize fraud and money laundering statutes to strengthen prosecutors’ ability to combat fraud, including mortgage and securities fraud, by:
o Updating the definition of “financial institution” in federal fraud statutes to include mortgage lending businesses that are not directly regulated or insured by the federal government (these businesses account for nearly half of residential mortgages);
o Amending the major fraud statute to protect funds expended under the economic recovery package and the bank bailout;
o Strengthening the False Claims Act to reverse recent court decisions that have made it more difficult to recover funds and impose penalties for proven frauds; and
o Filling key statutory gaps to account for modern types of fraud and correct misinterpretations of the law in recent court decisions; and
· Establish a select committee of the Senate to study and investigate how the economic crisis developed so that we can avoid similar crisis in the future.
Besides the obvious benefits of combating financial crime and protecting taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse, FERA would recover billions of dollars in restitution, fines, and penalties for the government and victims. For every $1 spent in the DOJ’s Criminal Division to prosecute fraud, more than $20 is recovered. For every $1 spent in the DOJ’s Civil Division to recover health care funds under the False Claims Act,more than $15 is returned to the government. (Department of Justice and the Taxpayers Against Fraud.)
The 111th Congress passed a law to ensure fair pay for all Americans. While the battle for equality and civil rights is far from over, in January 2009, all those who believe in the promise of “equality and justice for all” achieved a major victory when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 into law (P.L. 111-2). In doing so, Congress and President Obama ended a nearly two-year battle to overturn a Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for victims of pay discrimination to seek redress and receive justice.
In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., the Court ruled that the 180-day statute of limitations on filing a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 begins to run when the original discriminatory decision is made and conveyed to the employee, regardless of whether the pay discrimination continues beyond the 180-day period. This ruling reversed a long-standing interpretation, used by nine federal circuits and the EEOC in both Democratic and Republican Administrations, under which the statute of limitations began to run each time an employee received a pay check or other form of compensation reflecting the discrimination.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act restored the “pay-check accrual” interpretation to ensure that employees who can prove pay discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability will not be forever barred from seeking redress because they did not learn they were victims of pay discrimination within six months after the discriminatory decision was first made.
A previous attempt to pass this legislation in the 110th Congress was obstructed by Senate Republicans, but in the 111th Congress, with a larger majority, Senate Democrats were able to pass the bill on a vote of 61 to 30. The House of Representatives passed the bill on a vote of 250 to 177 and the measure became law on January 29.
Democrats are Working to Protect Our Nation’s Environment and Natural Resources
On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11). The legislation represents the most significant conservation legislation passed by Congress in 15 years. The legislation designated over two million acres of wilderness; adds over 1,000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers; 2,800 miles of National Trails; 330,000 acres of National Conservation Areas; codifies the National Landscape Conservation System; and authorizes the Forest Landscape Conservation Service and measures to improve our oceans, coasts, Great Lakes, and water resources. The following describes some of the provisions in the legislation:
· Wilderness. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 designated over two million acres of wilderness surpassing the combined wilderness acreage designated by the 108th, 109th, and 110th Congresses (Congressional Research Service). The designation of the two million plus acres of new wilderness areas spans nine states (West Virginia, Virginia, Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Michigan, Utah, and California). The designation of wilderness allows Congress to protect our nation’s most pristine lands and best wildlife habitats for the current and future generations.
· Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 added over 1,000 miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in seven states (Oregon, Idaho, California, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and Massachusetts). Wild and Scenic Rivers are designated by Congress to preserve free flowing rivers that possess outstandingly remarkable environmental, scenic, and recreational features.
· National Trails System. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 added more than 2,800 miles into the National Trails System through the creation of new national trails in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. The National Trails System is designed to preserve public access to trails so that they can continue to be valuable resources for our country.
· National Conservation Areas. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 created more than 330,000 acres of new National Conservation Areas in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. National Conservation Areas provide important protections from development while also improving those areas recreational opportunities.
· National Landscape Conservation System. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 codified the National Landscape Conservation System currently operating administratively within the Department of Interior. In 2000, the Department of Interior administratively established the National Landscape Conservation System so that public awareness of the various natural areas managed by the Department of Interior might be increased. The codification of the National Landscape Conservation System will help ensure that sustained funding will be available for the Department of Interior to protect its most exceptional areas while also keeping environmental protection a high priority at the Department of Interior for years to come.
· Oceans. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 will improve our nation’s understanding of the oceans, coasts, and the Great Lakes by authorizing coordinated federal research programs that will:
o Increase our understanding of ocean acidification, a process by which seawater becomes more acidic as the oceans absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions. The acidity of surface seawater has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution-the most dramatic change in ocean chemistry in at least 650,000 years (Discover Magazine);
o Expand our understanding of oceans, which cover two-thirds of the earth’s surface. Only approximately five percent of the ocean floor has been explored, and the potential for identifying new and beneficial scientific information, new drugs, and resources in the oceans remains significant; and
o Advance the knowledge of coastal and ocean resources and ecosystems that today lack real-time, standardized, and accessible data on key environmental variables like temperature, salinity, sea level, surface currents, and pH. The lack of this data significantly impairs data on the impacts that climate change could have on coastal and ocean ecosystems.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 also authorizes funding for coastal and estuarine landprotection. The pressures from increasing urbanization and pollution threaten these habitats. Conserving these areas will help meet diverse priorities, such as promoting tourism and recreation and supporting fisheries and wildlife that substantially contribute to coastal economies.
Democrats are Demanding Transparency, Accountability, and Ethics in Washington
The Senate unanimously and quickly approved strengthened supervision of the TARP. On February 4, 2009, the Senate passed the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009 (S. 383) by unanimous consent. This bipartisan legislation expands the authority of and adds the tools needed by the Special Inspector General overseeing the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that was created last fall. The bill would, among other things, add authority for the Inspector General to audit programs, function with the same law enforcement authority granted to the Inspectors General of major federal agencies, and cooperate with other Inspectors General. The President recently signed this legislation into law on April 24, 2009 (P.L. 111-15).
Democrats are Working to Support Small Businesses
Congress approved a program to give entrepreneurs the resources they need to help boost our economy. On March 17, 2009, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill (H.R.1541) to temporarily extend the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
Although, small firms employ 41 percent of the nation’s high-tech workers and generate 13 to 14 times more patents per employee than large firms, they have received a disproportionately low share of federal R&D dollars. The SBIR program was designed in 1982 to harness the innovative capacity of America’s small businesses to meet the needs of our federal agencies and to help grow small, high-tech firms that, in turn, grow local economies all across the nation. Since then, the SBIR program has generated more than 84,000 patents and millions of jobs. Eleven federal agencies participate in the SBIR program – including the Department of Defense and National Science Foundation – allocating 2.5 percent of their extramural research and development dollars for the program.
This temporary reauthorization, which extends SBIR and other programs through July 31, 2009, gives Congress more time to pass a comprehensive bipartisan bill that will strengthen and improve the SBIR program and provide long-term stability for the program.
Democrats are Working to Improve Opportunities for Service
As Americans face the numerous challenges created by the economic crisis, the need for service to our communities is greater than ever. On March 26, 2009, the Senate approved the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (H.R.1388). This legislation reauthorizes the National and Community Service Act of 1990 and the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973, and authorizes nearly $6 billion over five years to expand opportunities for Americans to engage in service throughout their lives. The legislation was signed into law on April 21, 2009 (P.L. 111-13).
Currently, programs such as Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America, support almost four million Americans in service to more than 70,000 community organizations. These services have had the empowering and inspiring effect of mobilizing an additional 2.2 million volunteers. This army of volunteers has the power to transform and inspire communities across America.
The bill would expand the mission of the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Corporation) and increase the number of national service participants in the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 current members to 250,000 over the next eight years. An analysis of AmeriCorps shows that every $1 invested produced returns up to nearly $4 in direct, measurable benefits. By creating the ServeAmerica Corps, the Corporation will be able to target service in four areas in need of increased assistance in low-income communities, including: Clean Energy, Education, Health Futures, and an Opportunity Corps to boost financial literacy.
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act renews a spirit of national service and encourages volunteerism in all age groups. An Encore program will also be developed to engage the retiring baby boom generation, which has a multitude of talents to share. A Veterans Service Corps will also be established to support the service of veterans.
Two new programs will be created under the National and Community Service Act of 1990, including a Youth Engagement Zone to Strengthen Communities program and a Campus of Service program. The Youth Engagement Zones aim to engage high school students and out-of-school youth in the transformative experience of service through partnerships between community organizations and schools in low-income communities. The Campus of Service program will support and recognize institutions of higher learning with outstanding service-learning programs and provide funding to support students’ pursuit of careers in public service.
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act wouldcreate a Summer of Service program to enlist middle and high school students in volunteer services at home, including a $500 education award to be directed to the cost of college. The legislation would also increase the education award in AmeriCorps to match the Pell Grant award.