Category Archives: Federal Government

Supreme Court Decision Protects Against Housing Discrimination

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down a number of critical decisions that impacted millions of Americans. While the nation is still buzzing about their decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, another ruling that plays a major role in the fight against housing discrimination received less attention. In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Supreme Court confirmed that housing policies that have a “disparate impact” based on race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or family status are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. This applies to policies that may not explicitly intend to discriminate against certain groups but still create a pattern of discrimination. The disparate impact standard of the Fair Housing Act has been a critical tool in dismantling institutional racial discrimination in housing and lending, and although less well known, it has been a valuable asset for survivors of domestic violence.

The Fair Housing Act was first used to prevent domestic violence housing discrimination in the case of Alvera v. the CBM Group, Inc. After Tiffani Alvera was attacked by her husband and hospitalized, she gave a copy of her protection order to the landlord to have her husband evicted from their shared residence. The landlord responded by ordering both her and her husband to vacate the property within 24 hours. She was told that a member of her household “inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants,” which was grounds to terminate her lease. The fact that Alvera herself was the victim of this violence did not deter her landlord from ordering her out. When she filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, the court agreed that although the policy was not directly intended to discriminate against domestic violence victims, it still had a disparate impact and amounted to gender discrimination.

There are many ways landlords can discriminate against tenants currently experiencing or with a history of domestic violence. They may refuse to rent to applicants with a history of DV. For current tenants, they may fail to renew their lease, evict them or raise their rent as punishment for their abusers’ actions. Some localities also have nuisance ordinances which heavily fine or punish landlords who have the police called to their buildings too many times. This puts pressure on landlords to discourage tenants from seeking help or to evict them if they call the police multiple times. In one case, Lakisha Briggs was warned, after calling the police for violence committed by her ex-boyfriend, that she would be evicted from her apartment if she kept calling. She endured two more brutal attacks from her ex-boyfriend out of too much fear to report it, but was evicted anyway when other residents called the police. Although this case was settled in court and the ordinance repealed, these types of policies are still popular across the country. One study of Milwaukee found that in a single year, 157 nuisance citations were given to landlords for domestic violence incidents, disproportionately directed at women from low-income, mostly black neighborhoods. In the majority of these cases the landlord responded with immediate eviction.

Currently, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have statutes protecting against some form of domestic violence housing discrimination. However, many of these statutes are narrow and do not cover the full range of possible discrimination, leaving many victims unprotected by state policies. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decision ensures the Fair Housing Act can continue to offer relief for anyone affected by discriminatory housing policies and prevent domestic violence victims from having to make the impossible choice between keeping their housing and protecting their safety.

Source: ICPH, Source: Legal Momentum, State Law Guide: Housing Protections for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, June 2013.

 

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Connecting to a Lifeline: Technology and Survivor Safety

Access to technology like phones and the internet are critical for domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking survivors’ safety. Cell phones allow survivors to call law enforcement or an ambulance to the scene of a crime, which may stop that violent incident and start the path to recovery. They allow survivors to stay in contact with the criminal justice system, whether to cooperate with a prosecution, communicate about upcoming hearings or receive notification about an offender’s release. In addition, phones and the internet are primary methods for survivors to research and contact appropriate services in their community, including health care, child care, shelters, rape crisis hotlines and other survivor services that are specific to their unique needs like languages or disabilities. If survivors still live with an abuser or had to relocate because of violence, this technology may be even more necessary to stay connected to these vital sources of information and economic justice.

Technology is also essential to achieving economic security, which is directly linked to survivor safety and independence. Not only is reliable internet needed for job searching, it is also increasingly necessary to apply for such opportunities. Currently over 80% of job positions with Fortune 500 companies must be applied for online and over 60% of American workers use the internet for their job duties. Information and applications for training and education programs, benefit programs and other financial services are often only accessible online as well. Furthermore, one study estimated that the typical American consumer saves $8,800 a year by accessing bargains and comparison shopping on the internet.

Unfortunately, low-income survivors may not be able to afford this technology. They may have lost their jobs due to an abuser’s interference or they may be facing high health care, housing, childcare or other costs stemming from violence. An abuser may have destroyed previous cell phones or computers as a means of control and intimidation and the cost of replacement can be prohibitive, especially to replace a phone out of contract. Survivors who leave an abusive partner may be struggling to make ends meet on their own while no longer benefiting from the economies of scale that couples experience.

For these reasons, WOW recognizes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for taking steps this week to expand their valuable Lifeline program, which is currently helping over 12 million low-income American households pay their landline or cell phone bills. One of the new proposals before the FCC would allow broadband internet to also be subsidized for participants. To qualify, household income must be at or below 135% of the federal poverty line or they must take part in a federal assistance program such as Medicaid, TANF or SNAP. A preliminary vote  is anticipated in mid-June with a final vote possible by the end of the year.

Survivors and service providers may also benefit from programs such as Verizon’s Hopeline, which collects cell phones and accessories and donates them refurbished to domestic violence organizations for survivors. However, although technology may be essential for survivors to access services and achieve independence, it can also be used as a tool by abusers to control, harass and stalk survivors. Advocates and survivors should be aware of resources such as the Stalking Resource Center’s Use of Technology to Stalk website and course and NNEDV’s Technology Safety Plan Guide to help protect survivors against abuser manipulation of these tools. 

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Another Mother’s Day and So Little Has Changed: Isn’t It Time for Public Policies that Support Working Mothers?

On Mother’s Day in 2015, so many working mothers are struggling to support themselves and their families. And unfortunately they can find very little support in federal legislation.  Today there are only three federal laws that protect mothers in the workforce: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave to new or expectant parents, and a provision of the 2010 health care reform that expands the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to protect mothers who are breastfeeding in the workplace.

And these laws aren’t even protecting all working mothers. For instance, FMLA is job protected family leave that is only available to workers who met certain criteria.  Workers must have worked for their employer for at least 12 months; performed at least 1,250 hours of service for the employer during the 12 month period immediately preceding the leave; and worked at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.  And, even more important, is this leave is UNPAID.  So if a worker cannot afford to take time off without pay, they simply cannot take FMLA without facing serious financial consequences.

The United States stands with only one other country in the world–  Papua New Guinea—that does not have a law that requires PAID family leave for new mothers and other caregivers.  In addition, the US lags behind most countries in regard to other workplace protections for parents.   The US does not have paid sick days law—forcing working mothers to work sick or come to work while their child is sick. In fact a mother can be fired for calling out of work if she or her child is sick. Working mothers also have no right to schedule control—meaning they are at the mercy of their employer to schedule their work shifts in ways that allow them to try to manage their family demands.  Childcare continues to be unaffordable and inaccessible to many mothers.  And of course, working mothers continue to face a pay gap in the workplace. Importantly since women are now breadwinners for 40% of US families with children under the age of 18, this is not just a working mother issue, this is a working families crisis.  While a handful of states have passed laws that provide paid leave, paid sick days and/or schedule control, the vast majority of working mothers are left without any protections.

Not surprisingly then, on this Mother’s Day, working mothers’ economic insecurity results, in part, from a lack of strong public policies that support working families. Working mothers are forced to address the conflicts of work and family labor on their own– often having to make hard and sometimes life-threatening choices.  And for single mothers, their situation is significantly worse. In 2013 the poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 39.6 percent, compared to 19.7 percent for male-headed families with children, and 7.6 percent for families with children headed by a married couple. In fact, nearly 522,000 single women with children (12.0 percent) who worked full time, year round in 2013 lived in poverty.  What is perhaps even more troubling is that years out of the recession single working mothers are actually MORE economically insecure. Between 2007 and 2012, the share of female-headed working families that are low-income increased from 54 percent to 58 percent, according to a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  Quite simply the individualistic approach to addressing work and family is just not working.

So on this Mother’s Day perhaps it is finally the time for “ Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” for far too long to have to have workplace protections and public policies that can actually support the economic security of mothers and their families.

Photo Source: https://aaaaahhhhshark.wordpress.com/2010/02/

Photo Source: https://aaaaahhhhshark.wordpress.com/2010/02/

 

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FY16 Budget Would Help Minimize Key Economic Barriers to Survivor Safety

Violence can impose significant costs on survivors, including physical and mental health care, lost wages, safety planning and relocation costs. Furthermore, economic abuse can result in life-long consequences due to job loss, debt or damaged credit. When combined with today’s high cost of living, shortage of good jobs and diminished safety net, these impacts severely limit survivors’ options to achieve safety and justice. WOW applauds the Obama Administration for increasing investments in programs that support the safety and economic security of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and stalking victims in their recent Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

The primary source of these programs is the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice, which was allotted nearly $474 million for a proposed increase of $44 million. This includes funding for shelter and housing services, which are critical in light of how often survivors cite housing, employment and other economic needs as barriers to recovering from violence. The additional $10 million for the Legal Assistance Program would also greatly help the safety and recovery of survivors by improving their ability to access remedies that only exist within the justice system, such as restitution and economic relief in protection orders. Although the general sexual assault services program was unfortunately budgeted at $3 million less than last year, we are pleased to see a $14 million increase to funding for campus violence. Addressing campus-based sexual assault is especially important considering the impact violence has on college completion and how critical education is for economic security and stability.

Beyond the Department of Justice, there are proposed investments to other federal agencies that directly or indirectly support survivors. Specifically, the budget provides $37 million to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for 5,000 new housing vouchers for survivors in need of emergency transfers from their existing assisted housing as well as vouchers for survivors through the Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program. The Department of Health and Human Services increased their budget to help survivors through shelters, support services and the national domestic violence hotline from $138.5 to $162 million. The shelter services are largely coming through Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) funds, which provide badly needed support to local programs. Lastly, survivors are better able to escape and recover from abuse if they have access to quality employment with an adequate wage and supportive leave policies. For these reasons, we commend the President for his recommendations to encourage state paid leave policies, raise the minimum wage, strengthen pay discrimination enforcement and expand job training programs.

We are encouraged to see some of the economic barriers that prevent survivors from seeking safety and justice being addressed in the Obama Administration’s budget. These investments are necessary to provide survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence and stalking the resources needed to move forward. We remain hopeful that Congress will take steps to make these proposals a reality.

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On the Hill: WIOA, Appropriations, and UI

Congress returned this week to Washington for its final work period before the August recess. While still deadlocked on resolving differences on major appropriations bills, Congress did act to actually reform and reauthorize the nation’s job training programs.

Following passage last month of the bipartisan Senate version of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, on Wednesday the House passed the compromise bill on a 416-6 vote. It will next head to President Obama, who has expressed his support and is expected to sign it into law. The compromise legislation, crafted by leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, repeals the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 and replaces it with new authority that maintains most of WIA’s original programs. The measure authorizes funding through fiscal year 2020 for workforce development systems at the state and local level, and also maintains and modifies Job Corps, national programs, and adult education and literacy initiatives. It repeals 15 separate programs and requires states to submit plans for workforce systems that address all of the core programs under the measure. The language also standardizes performance indicators for all programs, and requires states to develop comprehensive strategies to align workforce activities with labor market demands, business needs and economic development goals. The bill continues the basic structure of state workforce development systems, with state and local boards developing workforce development plans that govern education, job training and other programs through one-stop delivery systems. However, it modifies the roles of the boards and requires that the plans be more comprehensive and tailored to the region’s employment and workforce needs so that the programs can provide training, employment services, adult education and vocational rehabilitation through a coordinated, comprehensive system.

In spite of the its showing strong bipartisan, bicameral support for the job training measure, Congress remains starkly divided on the 12 major spending bills that must be passed to fund major federal programs for fiscal year 2015. While the House continues to pass various spending bills (although its Energy-Water bill drew a veto threat from the Obama administration this week), the appropriations process in the Senate is essentially at a standstill as a result of contentious policy riders being attached to various spending bills. Because of the increasingly slim odds of lawmakers managing to reconcile spending bills passed by each chamber, it appears Congress will need to pass an emergency spending package to cover immediate threats like wildfires and border security.

Given this reality, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) has urged that his proposal to extend unemployment insurance benefits be attached to such a measure. Unfortunately, Sen. Reed’s proposed mechanism to pay for the extension is now being considered as a way to ensure continued funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which covers many of the nation’s major infrastructure projects and is expected to run dry this summer. Reed’s proposal to extend jobless aid for five months would cost a little under $10 billion and would be fully offset — a key to Republican support — using a combination of revenue raisers that includes extending “pension smoothing” provisions and extending customs user fees through 2024. House leadership has expressed no appetite for taking up the jobless aid renewal without attaching major Republican priorities.  The odds of action on unemployment insurance seem even smaller now that House Ways & Means Chairman David Camp has announced plans to use pension smoothing, which temporarily reduces the amount that companies are required to pay into their pension funds, as a way to continue funding transportation projects for 10 months.

Beyond unemployment insurance benefits, other items on Senate Democrat’s “Fair Shot” economic agenda continue to flounder without bipartisan support in the chamber. Launched with fanfare as a coordinated plan to align senators behind party priorities aimed at addressing inequality in the economy, an agenda that included the minimum wage, pay equity and student loan refinancing has been stalled by shortfalls on votes and procedural impasses. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has little time before August recess to bring up any of these or additional priorities for what will likely be a doomed cloture vote on the Senate floor. Unless a clear path to bipartisan support can be forged—something that seems increasingly unlikely given the breakdown in the chambers’ appropriations process—many of these items appear to be on hold for the foreseeable future, or at least until after the August recess.

Both the House and the Senate will be in session next week.

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Reflections on SCOTUS, Women’s Rights and Economic Security

The Supreme Court finished its 2013-14 term last week with rulings on labor unions, law enforcement searches and healthcare coverage, many of which carry larger, adverse implications for women than meets the eye. Among this term’s major decisions were McCullen v. Coakley, ruling against 35-foot protection zones around abortion clinics in favor of protestor’s freedom of speech, the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision regarding birth control and religious freedoms, and Riley v. California, which ruled that cell phones could not be searched without a warrant.

While taking steps to protect privacy, Riley v. California may be tough on survivors of domestic abuse or stalking in a subtle way. Previously, law enforcement has been able to use communication records between abusers and survivors to issue emergency protection orders, but now it cannot do so until it receives a warrant, which can potentially slow down the protection order process. Harris v. Quinn, the labor union ruling that stripped unions working in the partial public sector of their ability to collectively bargain in “fair share agreements”, disproportionately affects low-income women of color and immigrant women who work in domestic healthcare and other traditionally female jobs.

Two controversial split-court decisions were handed down in SCOTUS’s final week of the term, addressing the birth control mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its implications for employers and their female employees. The first, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., dealt specifically with the ACA’s mandate that employers provide contraceptives through their employee healthcare plans. Hobby Lobby asserted that its religious freedoms were being violated by the mandate, specifically objecting to four types of birth control. Hobby Lobby won its case 5-4. Justice Alito’s majority opinion stated that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “closely held” companies whose owners had strong religious beliefs, such as Hobby Lobby, could legally opt out of the ACA mandate. Hobby Lobby is one of over one hundred similar companies seeking such an exemption and “closely held” corporations employ over 52% of American workers, so this ruling is expected to affect millions of women.

Wheaton College v. Burwell, a similar case decided just after Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, further demonstrated the Court’s willingness to make exceptions to the ACA’s birth control mandate on the grounds of deeply held religious beliefs. The case contested the federal exemption form that allows non-profits to hand the responsibility of covering staff and student contraceptives to insurers. However, the plaintiff argued that by filling out the form, it was still obligated to indirectly provide the contraception. The court ruled in favor of the Christian college in a 6-3 decision. Because of this ruling, women who work for such non-profits are left at the whims of their employer’s religious convictions.

These last two rulings are harmful to women everywhere, specifically working women, low-income women, and female survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Birth control’s steadily increasing diffusion and accessibility since the 1970s has allowed women to avoid both risk and cost, leading to more investment in their careers and older marriage and childbearing ages. It is also correlated with the gradual convergence of the gender wage gap since the 1970s. And not only will women be denied a healthcare right, businesses may lose productivity and see absenteeism increase as secondary results. Research shows that the economy would be 25% smaller today if women had never entered the workforce in such great numbers thanks in part to birth control access.

These rulings affect access to contraceptives, especially for low-income women, because of the extra expense of birth control. Two of the forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby opposed were IUDs, which are upwards of twenty times more effective than other contraceptives but can cost $1,000 per year without healthcare coverage. As Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissenting opinion in Hobby Lobby, this can be the equivalent of a whole month’s worth of wages for a woman earning minimum wage. One dose of emergency contraception that Hobby Lobby also objected to, like Plan B, can cost around $60. Women may now incur extra doctor’s fees to get government-funded prescriptions separate from their employee insurance, and services like Planned Parenthood are harder to come by due to decreased federal and state funding.

Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are made particularly more vulnerable by these rulings as well. Many survivors of intimate partner violence report that their abuser tampered with or refused to use contraceptives. Additionally, intimate partner violence and financial abuse go hand in hand – abusers often restrict access to economic resources that would allow a survivor to obtain birth control. The most effective and subtle forms of contraception available, and therefore the most helpful for women experiencing IPV, could potentially be denied to survivors under the Hobby Lobby ruling. In addition, rape survivors need access to emergency contraception, but the facts that it is not covered for crime victims in 34 states and many survivors can’t afford to buy it and wait to be reimbursed make it much less accessible when it is really needed. These Supreme Court decisions stretch further and do more damage than employers like Hobby Lobby seem to realize, and the effects could be major not only for vulnerable women but also for a large part of the American workforce.

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On the Hill: WIOA and UI Extension

Both the House and Senate were in session this week for a final few days of work ahead of the Fourth of July recess.

The Senate voted for passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act on an overwhelmingly bipartisan 95-3 vote. The legislation, crafted by Senators Harkin (D-IA), Alexander (R-TN), Murray (D-WA), and Isakson (R-GA) and Representatives Kline (R-MN), Miller (D-CA), Foxx (R-VA), and Hinojosa (D-TX), will now move to the House. The bill represents a compromise between the SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), which passed the House of Representatives in March of 2013, and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356), which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with a bipartisan vote of 18-3 in July, 2013. The House could consider the bill as early as when it returns from the Fourth of July recess. The National Coalition on Women, Jobs and Job Training (NCWJJT) offered this statement in response to WIOA’s introduction.

While the passage of the WIA reauthorization with clear bicameral, bipartisan support this week was an encouraging sign, the odds for a new measure to reinstate unemployment insurance for jobless Americans remain less sure. Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) continue to push for a bipartisan deal to extend the jobless aid, after their first attempt at a five month extension that passed the Senate in April languished in the Republican controlled House. The duo introduced their new proposal on Tuesday. It includes five months of extended benefits past 26 weeks, paid for by changes to pension laws and an extension of Customs fees through 2024.  A key difference with this most recent proposal is that the jobless benefits will not be retroactive for unemployed Americans who stopped receiving aid after the program expired last December. By avoiding retroactive benefits, the latest legislation may mute some of the critiques that the previous iteration was hard to implement. Its lack of a firm expiration date will also increase the bill’s shelf life if it takes a few months to pass. Timing could be tight with a busy workload of appropriations bills on the Senate’s schedule for July, perhaps the last full month of real legislating before the midterm election season goes into full swing. Even if the Senate does pass another unemployment insurance bill, the biggest challenge will be convincing the House to consider it, which it would certainly would not without including Republican-supported legislation like approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax or other changes to the health care overhaul.

The White House, Department of Labor, and allies this week hosted the Summit for Working Families, with the goal of raising the national dialog on the importance of policies that best support working parents. The event featured speakers from the advocacy, business, and policy worlds, and included remarks from President and First Lady. While touting passage of the Affordable Care Act, as well as executive actions to raise the minimum wage for all federal contracted workers, President Obama called on Congress to implement policies for working parents including paid sick and family leave, affordable childcare, raising the federal minimum wage for all Americans, and strengthening pay equity protections for women. The US lags markedly behind many other developed nations in ensuring access to these basic needs. In conjunction with the event, President Obama also released a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to offer flexibility to workers, implementing a “right to request” provision which allows workers to ask for flexible working situations without fear of retaliation. Among the many other actions and commitments announced by the White House, WOW and its partner Jobs for the Future committed to expanded a curriculum designed to help job training programs, community colleges, unions, industry partners and others to improve women’s access to nontraditional, high-wage careers. Read more here.

Both the House and the Senate will be in recess next week for the July 4th Holiday. The Senate will return on Monday, July 7th and the House will return Tuesday, July 8th.

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On the Hill: Student Debt and Agricultural Appropriations

Both the House and Senate were in session for the week, with legislative work temporarily overshadowed on Wednesday by the surprise defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in his primary election on Tuesday evening. Cantor’s loss has triggered a shakeup in House leadership, with current Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) seen as his likely successor. Cantor will step down as Majority Leader on July 1, 2014. Many observers see his departure from Congress as bearing not only political but also policy implications, particularly on the now increasingly distant prospects of passing comprehensive immigration reform.

Despite the buzz in Washington over Cantor’s unexpected primary loss, Congress continued its work this week on several appropriations bills and other legislative items. As was largely anticipated, a proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to allow student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates failed to clear a key procedural hurdle on the Senate floor Wednesday, falling short of the 60 vote threshold to proceed on a 56-38 largely party-line vote. Three Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Bob Corker of Tennessee voted in favor of the legislation, which would have allowed an estimated 25 million student loan borrowers with both federal and private undergraduate loans to refinance their debt at a 3.86 percent interest rate. Despite the bill’s failure, leaders in the Senate have pledged to address the nation’s $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, with the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act a primary venue for reforming the nation’s student loan system. Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) of the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions Committee has said he looks forward to working in a bipartisan manner on issues regarding college affordability and accountability, as well as lessening debt burdens and increasing repayment options for existing student loan borrowers in the legislation.

In other developments, the House of Representatives was expected to consider its fiscal 2015 Agriculture spending package on Thursday but ultimately delayed consideration of the bill until sometime next week. The measure prompted a rare White House veto threat, including a Statement of Administration Policy which said that the bill “injects political decision-making into science-based nutrition standards, and includes objectionable language riders.” The White House and House Democrats particularly objected to its language requiring waivers of new nutrition standards for some school districts. Under the standards schools are required to add more fruits and green vegetables to school meals while reducing the amount of salt and fat that students consume. The administration says the rules are vital to lowering childhood obesity levels. Generally, the House bill appropriates a total of $109.8 billion for domestic food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), Child Nutrition programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. The total for those programs is $1.2 billion more than current funding levels, but $23.2 billion less than the administration’s request.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate will be in session next week.

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On the Hill: Student Loans and Jobless Benefits

With the House in recess for the week, the main legislative activity took place in the Senate with continued work on nominations, appropriations bills, and a renewed focus on the issue of student loan debt.

Both the Senate Banking and Senate Budget committees held hearings on Wednesday on student loans, considering issues of borrower experiences with servicers and the impact on the broader economy of the nation’s $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.  The hearings came ahead of next week’s floor consideration of a bill sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would let Americans with outstanding federal and private student loans refinance them at the same rates students receive when taking out new federal loans. Students taking out new Stafford student loans pay 3.86 percent on undergraduate and 5.41 percent on graduate loans. The Warren bill would let people with public and private loans refinance their interest rates at those levels. The refinancing bill would be paid for by increasing taxes on millionaires — the so-called Buffett Tax, a reference to investor Warren Buffett, who’s said he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. The tax is a non-starter for Republicans, none of whom have openly supported the refinancing measure. The Congressional Budget Office Wednesday afternoon estimated that about half of all outstanding federal loans, which amount to $460 billion, and private loans, at $60 billion, would be refinanced under the bill. The CBO found that federal spending on student loans would increase by $55.6 billion in fiscal 2015, and total deficits would rise for the first few years after enactment, when most students would apply for refinancing. But ultimately deficits would decline by $22 billion from fiscal years 2015 to 2024, CBO said. Ahead of consideration of the proposal, several female Democratic Senators also highlighted the particular importance of student loan debt for young women, who enroll in college at higher rates than men do, and as a consequence of the gender wage gap. The Senators argued young women are doubly hit by the impact of large student loans and lower wages than their male counterparts, pointing to research showing that college-educated women make 82 cents on the dollar as compared to college-educated male counterparts.

After the House failed to take up a Senate passed bill to extend unemployment insurance benefits through May and to provide retroactive checks to those who had stopped receiving payments since the program expired on Dec. 28, lawmakers eager to see the benefits extended are considering the best path forward for the extension. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada have resumed negotiations to create new legislation that would extend the benefits. But the senators face a number of constraints that are hampering their negotiations, including an acceptable mechanism to pay for the benefits and the ability to make them retroactively available for those whose benefits were cut off more than five months ago. The measure also faces continued opposition in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has said that the chamber will not take up the jobless aid extension unless it includes separate measures aimed at job creation, which would likely not pass in the Senate. Neither Reed nor Heller has offered any kind of time frame for when they might introduce a new Senate package.

Finally, on Thursday the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the 22nd Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. On a bipartisan vote of 78 to 17, senators approved Burwell to lead the government’s largest domestic department, which includes the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Burwell is scheduled to be formally sworn in as Secretary on Monday.

Both the House and the Senate will be in session next week.

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On the Hill: Back to the Drawing Board for UI Renewal

While the Senate was in recess this week, the House met in a short session to continue work on various appropriations bills. The fiscal 2015 spending bill for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Commodity Futures Trading Commission will soon head to the floor after clearing a 31-18 committee vote on Thursday. Democrats failed in a series of attempts to block changes in nutrition policy during committee consideration of the package; in addition to preserving a waiver for school districts from school meal standards, the House Appropriations Committee also spared a provision in the bill adding white potatoes to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and adopted report language intended to soften calorie-labeling requirements on vending machines.

With the House apparently not taking up the Senate passed deal to extend unemployment insurance benefits through June 1, it will be back to the drawing board for leaders in Congress hoping to pass a bipartisan extension of the jobless aid. Leaders in the Senate continue to stick with their plan to keep the unemployment provision separate from a bipartisan reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, suggesting the importance of passage of that bill as well as a willingness to strike a separate deal on the unemployment insurance extension if possible. Some Senators have expressed hope that after the midterm election primary season winds down, there may be a second window of opportunity to make legislative progress.

The House will be in recess next week, while the Senate will return to Washington and will be in session.

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