Continuing Resolution Approved, Preventing Government Shutdown
Last week, President Trump signed a continuing resolution that continues funding for the federal government through November 21. The measure received bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, with the House voting 301-132 and the Senate voting 81-25 in favor.
Appropriators now have until just before Thanksgiving to continue spending negotiations and reach consensus on the twelve outstanding appropriations bills for fiscal year 2020. Should appropriators fail to reach an agreement by November 21, an additional continuing resolution will be necessary to avert a government shutdown.
Senate Advances FY 2020 Appropriations Bills, Including WIC Funding
Roughly two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced their FY 2020 Agriculture Appropriations bill. The bill provides $151.7 billion in funding for USDA programs, including $58 million in additional discretionary funding above FY 2019 levels.
The Senate bill includes $6 billion in overall WIC funding for FY 2020, a slight decrease of $75 million from FY 2019 enacted levels. This funding level should be adequate to serve all eligible participants throughout the next fiscal year. Consistent with recent appropriations bills, the Senate bill rescinds $800 million in unspent food funds, which is the same as the House bill that passed in June.
The Senate bill also includes $80 million in funding for WIC’s Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program. While this represents the first increase in the program since 2010, it falls short of the $90 million funding level included in the House bill. WIC’s Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program is demonstrated to increase initiation, duration, and exclusivity, but current funding has been insufficient to meet the need and ensure that every WIC participant can access a peer counselor. NWA recommends that legislators adopt the House funding number of $90 million in conference.
Also, the bill allocates $25 million to support the relocation of two USDA research agencies – the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – to the Kansas City area. The House bill passed in June prohibits the ERS/NIFA relocation, setting up a dispute between the two chambers. NWA has strongly opposed the relocation due to the disruption of ongoing research and significant staff attrition.
Public Charge Hearings This Week
The final public charge rule is due to go into effect on October 15, but two courts will consider this week whether to delay implementation amid legal challenges to the rule. Courts in California and Washington State will hold hearings to determine whether to issue a preliminary injunction, which will delay implementation of the final public charge rule until the court proceedings have concluded.
The two hearings are part of eight distinct lawsuits against the final public charge rule in five different jurisdictions. A decision on the injunction could be reached as soon as October 2. NWA joined in an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. We will continue to update members on the implementation of the final public charge rule and its impact on WIC families.
Majority of Senate Supports Paid Family Leave
Last Wednesday, the Senate narrowly rejected by a vote of 48-47 an amendment that would convert unpaid leave available to federal workers under the Family and Medical Leave Act into paid time off. The proposal could ensure that millions of employees have access to up to 12 weeks each year for parental leave or personal or family medical leave. The House had previously included the federal employee paid leave proposal in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Last week’s procedural vote is not the final step in the process, and the federal employee paid leave proposal could reemerge later in bicameral negotiations. Notably, the Senate vote included support from all Democrats and four Republicans – Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rob Portman (R-OH). With some paid leave advocates missing from the procedural vote, this signals that a majority of the Senate now supports a specific paid family leave proposal.
USDA Relocation of Research Agencies Delays Reports
USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) indicated last week that there will be significant delays in the publication of research and reports, a foreseeable byproduct of the accelerated process to relocate the two research agencies to Kansas City. At least 38 specific reports have been identified as either delayed or discontinued, including studies on food insecurity and analysis of the percentage of federal food assistance dollars that goes to farmers.
As a result of the relocation, there has been a mass exodus of research staff from ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), with only 7% of relocated staff choosing to move to Kansas City. In addition to the reporting delays, funding made available through NIFA has still not been awarded for grant programs, including those that assist fruit and vegetable growers, organic producers, and socially disadvantaged farmers.
This reported disruption to ERS and NIFA activities occurs even though USDA assured Congress that the relocation would not affect the agencies’ missions. In light of this news, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, issued a letter that raised a multitude of questions and requested answers regarding the impact of staff shortages.
DHS Reverses Policy to Deport Critically Ill Individuals, Including Children
Two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) informed members of Congress that it is reversing its earlier decision to halt deferred action – a temporary deportation relief for individuals receiving medical treatment for serious conditions. Without a formal announcement, DHS had denied deportation relief for nearly 400 applicants in August and instructed them to leave the country within 33 days. The move drew scrutiny from Congress, leading to a hearing and significant press coverage. NWA joined a chorus of other public health organizations to oppose the move and restore deportation relief for medical treatment.
FDA Rulemaking on Definitions for “Healthy” and “Natural” Forthcoming
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signaled that it will soon release proposed new definitions for “healthy” and “natural” claims on food labels. The updates have been under consideration for years, as the term “healthy” was last defined by the agency in the 1990s. FDA last accepted public comments on the definition back in September 2016. NWA will continue to update members when there is an opportunity to comment on food labeling.