Second Session of the 110th Congress: Tackling Tough Issues

Blair Tinkle, Legislative Director

Blair Tinkle, General Counsel to the Association and Congressional Liaison

Attorneys General should watch actions surrounding predatory lending, regulatory reforms and restoration of grant funding.

Although the presidential election started early in 2007, a phenomenon that usually hinders bipartisan agreement and the passage of significant legislation, the first year of the 110th Congress produced several accomplishments, with both parties and both chambers of Congress working together, if somewhat tested by partisan rhetoric. And there is a lot of work for Congress ahead.

In 2007, President Bush signed into law an increase in the minimum wage for the first time since 1997 and he signed a bill increasing automobile fuel economy for the first time in 32 years. A $555 billion omnibus appropriations bill was approved in 2007 and a sweeping student loan bill, including loan forgiveness for those who have held public service jobs for 10 years, was also signed by the President. Congress passed in late 2007, and President Bush signed in early 2008, a law that amended reporting requirements to help prevent those with adjudicated mental health problems from buying guns. In addition, Congress passed a fairly comprehensive lobbying and ethics reform package that the President signed into law in the fall of 2007.

However, Congress began the second session of the 110th Congress in 2008 with much remaining business. Even though Congress passed, and the President signed, a $168 billion economic stimulus package this year, tough battles remain ahead on issues such as an overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, health care, immigration, tax policy, a farm bill, dozens of online child protection and online content regulation bills, renewable energy and efficiency tax breaks and funding the war in Iraq. Of particular interest to state Attorneys General in coming months are the issues surrounding predatory lending/foreclosure crisis, reform of Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulation authority and lead standards as well as restoration of the Byrne/Justice Assistance Grant and child support enforcement incentive grant funding.

As Congress addresses the issue of predatory lending in the midst of what is, arguably, a crisis in foreclosures around the country, the battle for a compromise bill moves to the Senate. The bill that passed the House by a large majority late last year arrived in the Senate and appears to be stalled.

Meanwhile, Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-CT) is working behind the scenes to move his measure out of the Senate Banking Committee for a vote of the full Senate. Depending upon the source, Hill staffers handicap the likelihood of moving the Dodd bill differently. The bill stands a chance of being reported out of the Senate Banking Committee, but some give worse odds to the possibility of a floor vote.

There are reasons to believe the bill should move, but the more likely outcome will be a standoff. The media spotlight is focused on the foreclosure crisis on a daily basis and 2008 is an election year in which lawmakers would like to show some initiative. Also, new ethics rules in the Senate no longer give anonymity to Senators who put “holds” on a bill, which could make it harder to stop the measure on the floor. However, a narrowly divided and sometimes fractious Senate could cause the bill to remain in the Senate, putting the issue off to the 111th Congress.

This week, however, the Senate is preparing to debate a measure that would allow bankruptcy judges to change the terms of a primary mortgage that has entered into foreclosure, a provision that could help homeowners who cannot afford to pay their mortgages if they entered into predatory loans. The lending industry is expected to fight the measure in the first week of March as it moves to a floor vote in the Senate.

Also under consideration in the Senate at the beginning of March 2008 is another initiative to expand the authority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to oversee goods, particularly imports, to address the growing concerns over lead in children’s products. Although a bill passed the House in 2007 giving state Attorneys General a right of action to enforce a consumer product safety rule or order, and the ability to obtain appropriate injunctive relief, a Senate version received more support from consumer advocates. The Senate CPSC bill gave state Attorneys General enforcement authority, but also gave stronger penalties, contained whistleblower protections and offered whistleblowers a portion of civil penalties collected as a result of information that they have provided.

In the weeks to come, the Senate will take up a new version of the CPSC bill and rigorous debate is anticipated as Republicans, and the Administration that favors the House bill, tangle with Democrats advocating for greater state enforcement. If the bill passes the Senate, the House and Senate bills would go to conference for resolution later in 2008.

Also in the months ahead, as lawmakers attempt to build enough support for a supplemental appropriations bill that addresses budgets other than the Iraq war, look for states to advocate for restoration of funding in several areas. First, there will likely be a push to restore child support enforcement incentive grants that were cut by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. Second, there will likely be a drive to get Congress to undo a recent, drastic cut in the Byrne/Justice Assistance Grants that fund multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement, treatment interventions, police training, technology improvements, crime prevention programs and crime victims’ assistance programs.

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