Year in Review: Report from Governmental Affairs
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As the ABA’s eyes and ears in Washington, D.C., the Governmental Affairs Office spent the last year working with our ABA leadership, entities, and grassroots advocates to advance the ABA’s position on policy issues affecting the rule of law and the legal profession. Our hard work has paid off and we have seen some definite successes this year both in legislation passed by Congress and in policy decisions made by federal and state agencies.
Key bipartisan bills involving funding for the Legal Services Corporation, security for Supreme Court Justices, and lactation rooms for breastfeeding mothers in public buildings, including courthouses, have already been signed into law. Other bills we are tracking have advanced in only one chamber, so they remain ABA advocacy priorities as we move into the Second Session of the 116th Congress after the new year.
The top 10 legislative wins for ABA advocacy during the First Session of the 116th Congress include:
- Enactment of a $440 million appropriation for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), an ABA Priority, the highest funding level ever and a $25 million increase over the current $415 million funding amount. LSC will distribute these funds to nearly 900 legal aid offices in every congressional district that provide legal services to low-income Americans.
- Enactment of the Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 (Pub. L. 116-20), which included $15 million for the LSC to help victims of natural disasters across the country.
- Reauthorization of Security for Supreme Court Justices Act of 2019 (Pub. L. 116-75). The ABA supports the public law, which improved security for Supreme Court Justices by making the authorization permanent and assuring Justices and their official guests receive security services wherever they travel.
- Enactment of the Fair Chance Act of 2019 as part of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act ( Rept. 116-333). The ABA supports the Fair Chance Act, an ABA priority, which requires federal employers to postpone criminal background checks until after they make a conditional offer to an applicant, thereby ensuring that a criminal record is not an undue barrier to getting a job. An employer does not have to hire someone if there is a criminal history, but most candidates will be evaluated on their merits before a hiring decision is made.
- Enactment of the Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019 (Pub. L. 116-30). The ABA supports this law which requires public buildings, including courthouses, to contain a lactation room available to the public starting in August 2020. The ABA’s Young Lawyers Division spearheaded this legislative effort, from drafting the policy to attending congressional visits during its spring conference in Washington, DC, to advocate passage of the bill.
- Enactment of the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 in January 2019, which lists the American Bar Association as one of four organizations authorized to submit nominees for consideration by the President to serve, with advice and consent of the Senate, on a Review Board to determine which civil rights cold cases should be released to the public. The ABA submitted nominees to the White House in July, but no appointments have yet been made. Congress included a $2 million appropriation in the spending package just signed by the President to cover costs associated with implementing this new law.
- Approval by the House with strong bipartisan support (410-6) of the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act of 2019 and introduction in the Senate. The ABA supports the CASE Act, which would create an alternative forum inside the U.S. Copyright Office where parties can voluntarily pursue low-value copyright claims while avoiding the high cost of legal counsel and time-consuming federal copyright infringement litigation.
- Approval by the House with bipartisan support of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and introduction in the Senate. The ABA has strongly supported VAWA since first enacted in 1994, which responds to the needs of victims, provides tools for holding offenders accountable, and sets up measures for data collection to learn more about these crimes. VAWA has been reauthorized in a bipartisan manner several times already, and the ABA is working diligently to assure reauthorization again this year.
- Enactment of other appropriations important to the ABA, including:
- $2 million for the John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program that incentivizes law school graduates to serve as prosecutors or public defenders in their communities by offering student loan repayments in exchange for a three-year commitment.
- $7.48 billion in discretionary funding for the federal judiciary, which is $234 million more than FY 2019 funding.
- $18 million for the Legal Orientation Program in Department of Justice funding, for legal rights presentations, self-help workshops, and other services to thousands of immigrant detainees.
- Supplemental appropriations to fund legal and other services for unaccompanied children at the border with $100 million for these services included in Department of Health and Human Services funding.
- $2.4 billion for Democracy Programs that include human rights and rule of law programs around the world.
- $25 million to fund research into the causes of gun violence, the first time federal funds can be used for this purpose in over 20 years.
- Defeat of federal anti-money laundering proposals that would subject many attorneys to extensive regulation under the Bank Secrecy Act and require them to file suspicious activity reports against their clients. The ABA opposed provisions in two leading beneficial ownership reporting bills in the 115th Congress because they would undermine the attorney-client privilege, the confidential attorney-client relationship, and the fundamental right to effective counsel. As a result of the ABA’s advocacy, the sponsors did not include these harmful provisions in the two main beneficial ownership bills introduced this year.
In addition to these legislative wins, advocacy efforts by ABA leaders and entities working with the Governmental Affairs Office also contributed to other achievements at the agency or state level, including:
- Reconsideration of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) eligibility for ABA and similar non-501c(3) employees. As a result of a federal court decision brought by the ABA and other plaintiffs against the U.S. Department of Education (ED) where the court vacated the standards ED applied to deny PSLF eligibility for some of the plaintiffs employed by non-501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, the ED is reconsidering some of its procedures and reinstating eligibility for some ABA staff, as well as employees of other organizations.
- Adoption of a significant change to the Child Welfare Policy Manual to allow states to use federal funding to pay for legal services for parents and children for the first time. This change underscores the government’s commitment to both advancing and investing in the importance of high-quality legal representation in the child welfare field. The ABA supported this funding change because it will produce better outcomes for countless children, families, courts, and child welfare agencies throughout the country.
- Defeat of an Office of Personnel Management proposal to ask federal job applicants whether they ever participated in a pretrial intervention or diversion program that led to dismissal of a criminal charge. The ABA opposed this proposal because state and local diversion programs are supposed to minimize harsh collateral consequences of convictions, an ABA priority, and this proposal was contrary to White House support for recently enacted criminal justice reforms.
- The granting of stays of execution for two death row inmates in different states. The ABA took no position on the constitutionality of the death penalty in either case, but urged the delay of scheduled executions to allow time to consider pending appellate claims of innocence.
While much has been accomplished during the First Session of the 116th Congress, there is still significant advocacy work to be done. In 2020, the Governmental Affairs Office will continue its efforts to ensure adequate LSC funding and access to justice, protect the attorney-client privilege and the confidential attorney-client relationship, reauthorize VAWA, pass the CASE Act, provide a permanent fix for Dreamers who entered the country as minors, build upon recent criminal justice reforms, and pursue other policy work of importance to the legal profession. We will share developments with ABA entities and our grassroots advocates, leverage opportunities to advance ABA policies, and make our collective voice for the legal profession heard in the new year.