National Association of Attorneys General
Congress: Looking Back at 2013
Amidst an extraordinarily partisan climate, the first year of the 113th Congress achieved a few noteworthy legislative accomplishments in 2013. Chief among these was the U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) budget deal struck in December. Congress acted to put together a budget deal for the first time in years, allowing House and Senate Appropriations Committees to determine funding amounts for fiscal year (FY) 2014. This budget resulted from the three-month continuing resolution that ended the October government shutdown and restored funding for the government through Jan. 15.
This budget agreement set a new fiscal 2014 discretionary spending level of $1.012 trillion, allowing an increase in defense spending to $520.5 billion and an increase in non-defense spending to $491.5 billion. These increases are a $45 billion increase for FY2014 spending, which is evenly split between defense and non-defense spending. These increases are being offset with increased air passenger fees, greater retirement contributions by federal employees, and a controversial reduction in cost of living adjustments for military pensions. Pensions for veterans of working age who leave the military, often due to injury or disability, stand to be reduced by way of a 1 percent decrease in cost of living adjustments. The military pension would return to the full cost of living adjustment once the veteran turns 62. Legislation amending this military pension provision has been proposed. In addition, this budget did not extend benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Over both FY2014 and FY2015, this budget restores $63 billion of the automatic spending sequestration cuts. By this budget, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant(JAG) program is funded at $344 million, which is down from $352 million in FY2013. One Jan. 17, President Obama signed the budget into law.
Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking
Beyond the budget battles, Congress addressed a number of issues pertaining to combating human trafficking and domestic violence. In March 2013, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act was signed into law. This reauthorization expands federal protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants. The Act also authorizes various state and local grants that provide funding for transitional housing, legal assistance for victims, law enforcement training, and hotlines. In addition, the Act requires colleges and universities to educate students about sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. Included is also a reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, an Act on which NAAG encouraged appropriations funding in December.
Two new human trafficking bills were recently introduced. The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (S. 1733/H.R. 3610) includes a provision requiring states to enact legislation with a safe harbor provision for minors engaged in commercial sex. States would lose a portion of their (JAG) money for noncompliance.
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (S1738/H.R. 3530), introduced with bipartisan support, creates a Domestic Trafficking Victims� Fund. The fund will increase resources for domestic human trafficking victims. The fund is paid for through a new fine of $5,000 that will be levied on those convicted of certain federal crimes, including child pornography, sexual exploitation, and human smuggling. The bill increases the availability of restitution and witness assistance for victims and allows state and local law enforcement involved in human trafficking task forces to obtain wiretaps within state courts without federal approval. The bill broadens federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws to allow RICO prosecutions of individuals who assist or facilitate the enterprise, added to the prosecution through joinder. The bill expands federal forfeiture statutes to include any property involved in the offense and also increases the maximum penalties for human trafficking offenses.
The Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act (H.R. 2083) passed in the House with bipartisan support. The bill requires schools receiving federal funds to run criminal background checks on their employees and potential hires. Individuals convicted of enumerated crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, and rape, would be barred from employment. The Act also prohibits the employment of any individuals who refuse to consent to, or make false statements, in connection with a background check. Schools would be required to repeat or update background checks every five years, and a State Educational Agency or local educational agency would need to report to local law enforcement whenever background check information indicates that a sexual predator has applied for employment. The bill also provides school employees subject to a background check with a copy of the results and the opportunity for a timely process to appeal.
As we move into 2014, congressional observers are closely watching for any movement on immigration reform. On April 15, 2013, as momentum in Congress over immigration issues was growing, NAAG sent a letter to congressional leadership supporting federal immigration reform efforts. Not long after, the Senate passed The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) in June. The companion bill, H.R. 15, remains in the House with little bipartisan support. This legislation would provide for the hiring of additional Customs and Border Patrol officers. It would also allow certain illegal aliens to start the path to citizenship by granting Registered Provisional Status.
On the consumer protection front, onlookers are still waiting for an extension of the Mortgage Tax Forgiveness Relief Act, which expired on Dec. 31. NAAG sent a Dec. 19 letter to congressional leaders urging its extension.
In addition, The Reverse Mortgage Stabilization Act of 2013 (H.R.2167) was signed into law in August. It amends the National Housing Act with respect to reverse mortgages offered to elderly homeowners by authorizing the secretary of Housing and Urban Development to establish certain requirements to improve the fiscal safety and soundness of the program.
Another key piece of legislation to states is The Marketplace Fairness Act (S.743), which the Senate passed in May with bipartisan support. The Act provides states with the authority to compel online retailers, no matter where the retailer is based, to collect sales tax at the time of the transaction. In order for states to take advantage of this legislation, the Act requires that the states simplify their tax laws. The companion bill (H.R. 684) remains in the House Judiciary Committee awaiting further action.
The Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013 was signed into law in August. The law ties federal student loan rates to financial markets on all DIRECT student loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2013, and sets maximum rate caps for Undergrad, Graduate PLUS, and Parent PLUS loans. The rates are based on the 10 year T-bill plus fixed rates for each loan type.
Traction has increased around the issue of Patent Assertion Entities, or �patent trolls.� The term �patent troll� refers to a shell company that acquires patents so that it may file patent infringement lawsuits and make demands for licensing fees for the use of everyday technology, often sending vague letters targeted at small businesses and non-profit organizations. NAAG submitted a comment to the Federal Trade Commission condemning these entities in addition to proposing information sharing strategies to enhance enforcement efforts. To that end, in early December the House passed the Innovation Act (H.R.3309) with bipartisan support, which requires that the party alleging infringement include various specific items in the court pleadings to ensure they are legitimate patent owners. The bill also reorganizes trial proceedings to require losers to pay the prevailing side�s costs to reduce incentives for trolls. The companion bill (S. 1720) remains in Senate Judiciary Committee and is expected to face an uphill battle in the Senate.
Several bills dealing with mental health issues were introduced, including The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act of 2013 (S.162/H.R. 401), which was voted out of committee and, according to congressional observers, has a good chance of being enacted into law. It amends the Mentally Ill Offender and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 to expand assistance. One section addresses veterans� needs, including establishing or expanding veteran treatment court programs. This Act also reauthorizes appropriations for FY2015 - FY2019.
New life was breathed into The Excellence in Mental Health Act, (S. 264/H.R.1263) when it moved out of committee in December. It amends the Public Health Service Act to authorize the secretary of Health and Human Services to award matching grants to states or Indian tribes to expend funds for the construction or modernization of facilities used to provide community-based mental health and substance abuse services to individuals. It also establishes criteria for Community Behavioral Health Clinics that would provide a wide range of quality mental health services, including increased integration of physical, mental, and substance abuse treatment for a more holistic approach.
The School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, passed as H.R.3092 and signed into law in November, amends the Public Health Service Act to give additional preference in awarding certain asthma-related grants to states that allow trained school personnel to administer epinephrine.
Another noteworthy legislative accomplishment addresses underlying issues involved in the deaths caused by fungal meningitis traced to a compounding pharmacy�s medication contamination. Amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was the Drug Quality and Security Act (H.R.3204) signed into law in November. This Act establishes certain reporting requirements and restrictions for the compounding industry.
A noteworthy bill to watch in Congress is STOPP (Stop the Tampering of Prescription Pills) Act of 2013 (H.R. 486), which was referred to House Energy and Commerce Committee in February 2013 with bipartisan support. This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to require all brand name and generic drug manufacturers to use abuse-deterrent formulations for commonly abused painkillers, an issue on which NAAG sent a March letter to the FDA encouraging the agency to require generic drug manufacturers to use abuse deterrent formulations.