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Progressive Policy Wins in the Omnibus

The U.S. Capitol dome is framed by the flowers of a Saucer Magnolia tree, March 19, 2018. Photo: Getty/Bill Clark

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Congress has enacted a sweeping omnibus bill that funds government programs and agencies for the current fiscal year. Like any massive, compromise legislation, it has both positive and negative aspects. On the negative side, the biggest disappointment is the failure to provide any protection for Dreamers—even while increasing funding for certain aspects of immigration enforcement. President Donald Trump created cruel and unnecessary uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers and their families by ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last September, and he has rejected compromise after compromise on the issue. The position that Dreamers have been forced into is a moral outrage.

Yet, despite the failure to protect Dreamers, the omnibus includes a number of important advancements in funding domestic priorities that are worth recognizing—and may have received less attention amidst the drama over whether President Trump would sign the bill. These are meaningful steps forward in light of Congress’ striking underinvestment in domestic discretionary programs since 2011, resulting in numerous unmet needs. The deeply misguided tax plan recently enacted by President Trump and the Republican-led Congress—which gives away $1.5 trillion on tax cuts weighted to wealthy Americans and large corporations—could further threaten critical domestic priorities. In this context, the investments made in this omnibus bill are worth highlighting and should be built upon.

Some of the victories include:

A major investment in early childhood programs

The omnibus makes a major investment in early childhood programs, which will increase access to high-quality child care and preschool for young children. The bill includes an unprecedented increase in federal child care funding, expanding current discretionary resources by 80 percent for a total of $5 billion in 2018. The funding increase is a down payment on The Child Care for Working Families Act, a proposal introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) in 2017. The bill would guarantee child care assistance to low-income and middle-class families and make critical improvements in compensation for child care workers and child care program quality. If enacted, the Center for American Progress estimates the law would create 700,000 new early childhood sector jobs. In addition, the Head Start program’s funding, which provides early education and health, dental, and nutrition services to young children and their families, is increased by $610 million.

Protecting workers against tip stealing

On a bipartisan basis, Congress stepped in to block the Trump administration’s proposal to allow employers to pocket their workers’ tips. This proposal would have resulted in $5.8 billion in tips stolen each year, largely from low-wage workers—predominantly working women—who are more than twice as likely as nontipped workers to live in poverty. After the U.S. Department of Labor proposal suspiciously lacked the economic analysis that typically accompanies proposed rules, investigative reporters followed the paper trail and eventually caught Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney burying evidence and subsequently lying about it. Following months of vocal opposition and activism by millions of workers, advocates, and others, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Katherine Clark (D-MA) introduced legislation to ensure that workers can keep their tips. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) negotiated to include similar protections for tipped workers in the omnibus.

Congress also stripped harmful language out of the final bill to prevent workers from negotiating with corporations over pay and benefit increases. House lawmakers previously included a provision that would have prevented the National Labor Relations Board from enforcing the current joint employer standard—a little-used but powerful tool that helps ensure that U.S. workers employed by temporary help agencies, labor subcontractors, and franchises are able to exercise their right to form a union. By striking this language, Congress is helping uphold the ability of the 16 percent of American workers employed in these and other sorts of precarious work to exercise their rights on the job.

Positive steps on gun violence

The omnibus included two provisions to help ensure that state and federal agencies are providing timely, accurate records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) regarding individuals who are prohibited from buying and possessing guns. Recent tragedies—such as the mass shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 and at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017—highlighted the risks involved when records of individual prohibited from gun possession due to their criminal history are not provided to the background check system. Section 8106 of the omnibus requires the U.S. Department of Defense to report to Congress on its efforts to identify, prevalidate, and submit gun-prohibiting records to NICS—a direct response to the breakdown that allowed the Sutherland Springs shooter to buy his gun despite a previous conviction for domestic abuse. The Center for American Progress discussed the challenges relating to properly identifying domestic violence records and submitting them to NICS in a 2014 report. The Fix NICS Act, which is incorporated in the omnibus, increases accountability for federal agencies that fail to submit these records and provides incentives for state agencies to improve their ability to effectively provide these records as well.

While these provisions are a positive step forward in improving the operation of the background check system, they fall far short of the action Congress must take to meaningfully address gun violence in this country. Such potential action includes banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; disarming all domestic abusers; and requiring a background check for every gun sale.

Investments in higher education programs

The omnibus adds more than $2 billion in spending to federal student aid and other higher education programs that help make college more affordable and accessible, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Among the programs that will see increases in funding are Federal Pell Grants, Federal-Work Study, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, and the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, all of which provide funding to help low-income students access and afford college. Notably, many of the programs that Congress chose to bolster were slated for cuts under the Trump administration’s budget proposal.

Protecting America’s elections

The omnibus contains $380 million in new funding for the Election Assistance Commission to provide to states for election infrastructure and cybersecurity improvements. This represents an urgently needed investment in strengthening America’s election security preparedness at a critical moment where the country faces continued threats from foreign adversaries.

Additionally, the FBI will receive $307 million in counterintelligence funding to combat Russian interference in U.S. elections. The Federal Election Commission is also required to report to Congress on how they are identifying and combatting illegal foreign political spending.

The agreement on the omnibus also rejected efforts to block the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a law prohibiting electioneering by nonprofit organizations that receive tax-deductible funds. This important restriction prevents millions in secret political spending from flooding our elections system and will remain in place despite the efforts to remove it.

Investments in apprenticeship programs

The omnibus includes $145 million to expand apprenticeship programs, a $50 million increase from 2017. Importantly, the omnibus requires the funding to be used to support Registered Apprenticeship programs. This comes as the Trump administration is working to craft a parallel, industry-recognized apprenticeship system that will not necessarily meet the program and labor standards laid out under the Registered Apprenticeship system.

Investments in clean energy, environmental programs, and public lands

This budget rejects some of President Trump’s most devastating cuts to the public health, conservation, environmental, and clean energy programs that keep children safe, create jobs, and protect the great outdoors for future generations. The omnibus package maintains funding levels for the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the U.S. Department of the Interior and increases funding for the U.S. Department of Energy. Notably, despite repeated efforts by the congressional majority to undermine environmental protections and boost fossil fuel industry profits, the spending bill includes additional funding for cleaning up toxic pollution, clean energy research, and wildfire suppression programs.

Conclusion

The omnibus takes a number of important steps to begin reversing nearly a decade of congressional underinvestment in key priorities for American families. Continued investment will be needed in the coming years to address all of the critical unmet needs facing our communities and nation. But most urgently, President Trump and the congressional majority must take action to protect Dreamers, who were shamefully left out of this agreement.

 

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