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January/February 2010

Washington Report to Presbyterians

International Relations

by Catherine Gordon

Foreign assistance reform will be a big issue in the coming year. The faith community and others are urging Congress and the administration to elevate global development as a priority of U.S. foreign policy and to chart a new course for foreign assistance. The Initiating Foreign Assistance Act, HR 2139, was introduced last year with 125 cosponsors.  The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) supports this bill, which directs the president to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy to further the U.S. foreign policy objective of promoting global development, and for other purposes.

Water: Almost one billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water and two of every five people live without basic sanitation services.  Global warming, rapid industrialization and population and economic growth continue to put pressure on global water supplies, particularly in developing nations. Such issues can no longer be seen as isolated problems, but must be viewed as contributing to regional tensions, global health, child and maternal mortality, and economic growth. Last year PC(USA) advocated for $500 million to implement the “Water for the Poor Act”, with $315 million appropriated, a $15 million increase from the year before.  We will be supporting another $500 million in 2010.

Debt relief: The Jubilee Act (HR 4405) was introduced in December in the US House with bi-partisan support. The legislation would authorize expanded debt relief to poor countries that meet strict eligibility requirements but need help to fight global poverty, reform policies of international financial institutions and urge more responsibility in future lending to the world’s poorest countries. Introduction of a Senate bill is anticipated soon. 

Vulture funds are predatory hedge funds that siphon off resources newly freed by debt cancellation. They profiteer off debt cancellation resources by buying up poor country debt in default at pennies on the dollar and then using U.S. courts to sue for the full amount of the debt plus exorbitant interest rates and court fees. Instead of U.S. tax dollars going to poverty alleviation projects like building schools and treating HIV/AIDS, they go into the bank accounts of hedge funds.

The Stop VULTURE Funds Act (HR 2932) would prevent vulture funds from making excessive profit from the debt of the world's poorest nations. It was introduced in 2009 by Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), with 29 co-sponsors. There will be a push for a companion bill in the Senate in 2010.

Trade:  The Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act was introduced on June 24 by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) with 106 original cosponsors. The TRADE Act is supported by a broad array of labor, consumer, environmental, family farm and faith groups, and requires a review of existing trade pacts, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and other major pacts, as well as setting forth what must and must not be included in future trade pacts. It also provides for the renegotiation of existing trade agreements and describes the key elements of a new trade negotiating and approval mechanism to replace Fast Track that would enhance the congressional role in formulating agreements and promoting future deals that could enjoy broad public support. 

Cluster bombs: A bill introduced last year would effectively stop the US from using cluster bombs, which kill many more civilians than soldiers.  Already one quarter of the Senate has cosponsored the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S 416), which has bipartisan support. This bill states that, "Cluster munitions will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians." 

Nuclear weapons: The president and key policy analysts from both parties support a new strategic arms treaty with Russia, a new focus on multilateral negotiations and initiatives to reduce the nuclear danger and Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. 

Congo: If it becomes law, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (S 891) will give consumers the choice to purchase conflict-free electronics products.  Introduced by Reps. Wolf (R-Va.), McDermott (D-Wash.), and Frank (D-Mass.), the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (HR 4128) would create a system of audits and import declarations to distinguish goods imported into the United States that contain conflict minerals. The resulting transparency would be an important step toward breaking the links between the mineral trade and human rights abuses in Congo. It has 16 cosponsors and is before the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. 

Sudan: In its Sudan policy review completed in mid-October, the administration indicated it would regularly assess the progress of peace in Sudan — or lack thereof. Administration officials say that the parties to Sudan’s multiple conflicts will be under the microscope, and held to clear and predetermined standards of progress. The White House did not disclose the precise benchmarks it is applying to assess progress in Sudan, even as the official review process took place in January, and as tensions increase with the April national elections and January 2011 referendum on independence in southern Sudan approaching. The faith community urges the White House to disclose its bench-marks and work for peace in Sudan.

Colombia: Advocacy on Colombia was particularly successful last year, with $8 million more allocated in nongovernmental aid to Colombian refugees, along with $45 million for aid to internally displaced persons. A ban was imposed on funding to the Colombian intelligence agency embroiled in an illegal wiretapping scandal, along with new conditions that call for the Colombian government to respect the rights of human rights defenders, journalists, political opposition, religious leaders and trade unionists, as well as indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

Cuba:  Early on, the Obama administration ended all restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances to the island. Soon after that, the United States joined the Organization of American States’ unanimous vote to reverse a 1962 resolution barring Cuba from the OAS. The president has suggested loosening telecommunications restrictions for cell phone roaming deals and fiber-optics and an opening of agricultural business travel. The Travel for All legislation, HR 874/S 426, would lift the travel ban to Cuba. 

Haiti:  Last year PC(USA) called on the administration to grant temporary protective status to Haitian immigrants. The day after Haiti’s horrendous earthquake, the administration suspended deportation of Haitian illegal immigrants. Three days later, it granted temporary protected status to Haitians, letting them stay and work in the United States for 12 to 18 months. PC(USA) calls on the Obama administration to provide massive assistance for relief and reconstruction through grants, not loans, so that Haiti is not again saddled with large debts through  no fault of its own.  While $1.2 billion in debt was cancelled in June 2009 thanks to the efforts of the faith community, the country still owes $891 million.

Israel/Palestine: 2009 started with the horrific war in Gaza and southern Israel.  Then, President Obama gave a speech to the Arab world in Cairo that raised hopes of a renewed U.S. effort for peace in the Middle East. The appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East was another positive move. 

The call for a settlement freeze was not successful and the tensions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank continue to grow as Israeli settlements continue to be built. Early this year the president stated that the conflict was more intractable than he had thought. 

This year PC(USA) will press for lifting of the closure on Gaza and urge the White House to give attention to the grave humanitarian and economic crisis affecting 1.4 million Gazans, as well as urging a negotiated settlement and peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will continue to advocate for justice in all of the areas mentioned above and will keep members informed of progress through our Web site and the pages of the Washington Report to Presbyterians.

Energy, Environment and Economic Justice

by Anna Rhee, consultant

Hope, change and the promise of a “postpartisan” era infused the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C. when the new Obama administration and the 111th Congress started their work in 2009. Riding on winds of change, policymakers seemed ready to work together to address their biggest challenge — fixing Wall Street and helping Main Street. Political leaders promised to work together. Sadly, beneath the veneer of a cooperative spirit, rancor and partisan politics continued and by the end of the year any pretense of bi-partisanship was all but gone. 

Economic justice: Congress began 2009 by passing a $787 billion stimulus package.  Only Democrats supported it in the House, and three Republicans joined the Democrats to pass it in the Senate.  A mix of tax cuts and spending, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 is now seen by many analysts as having kept the economy from getting worse while preventing millions of Americans from falling below the poverty line. 

ARRA focused on two major areas — providing strong fiscal relief to help states stem the impact of their own budget cuts, tax increases and layoffs, and getting money to hard-pressed low- and moderate-income families for basic expenses.  Building on ARRA, the administration and Congress later supported additional infusions of cash into the economy to preserve and create jobs. 

Nonetheless, recovery is slow in coming. In December the jobless rate was 10 percent, with a staggering 15.3 million people unemployed.  Hunger and food insecurity are rising in urban and suburban communities. The labor market remains extraordinarily weak and jobs are hard to find.  The recession is battering state budgets which face deep cuts and shortfalls from the steepest-ever decline in state tax receipts.

Now, Congress is under pressure to continue economic stimulus measures, create new jobs, extend temporary aid to unemployed workers, and provide more fiscal assistance to help states avoid spending cuts and/or tax increases. As they proceed, Congress must be mindful of those who are already poor, and those at greatest risk of impoverishment and hardship in today’s economy. Economic growth and job creation should:

  • provide opportunity for all;
  • target low-income communities and vulnerable population groups;
  • generate employment and a long-term pathway to economic security and
  • improve key supports to help families with children meet their basic needs.

Congress must also recognize the enormous significance of health care reform in moving toward economic recovery. Expenditures in the United States on health care surpassed $2.2 trillion in 2007, more than triple the $714 billion spent in 1990, and over eight times the $253 billion spent in 1980.  Stemming this growth is a major policy priority in the current recession, as the government, employers and consumers struggle to keep up with health care costs.

Renewal and expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was one of the first bills passed by the 111th Congress and signed by President Obama. It provides a step forward in health coverage to low-income uninsured children who are not eligible for Medicaid.  When fully implemented, CHIP will cover about 11 million children, with 5 million more still uninsured.

Millions of people are left behind by our current health care system, and opportunities to address this broken system comprehensively are rare.  After the reauthorization of CHIP, policymakers were poised to handle larger health care reform issues, especially affordability and universal access. 

After a year of hearings, town hall meetings, negotiations and debate, the House and Senate each passed massive health reform bills that did more to divide than to unite, and drew as much criticism as praise. Now Congress is reconsidering its agendas, and facing temptation to turn away from this historic opportunity for health care reform. To do so would deny or delay justice for a generation. Congress should be urged to show political courage and act on meaningful health care reform.

Energy/environment: White House and congressional support for comprehensive climate and energy legislation was strong in early 2009, but  moved to the back burner even as the international community looked to the United States for leadership in climate negotiations in preparation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. 

The American Clean Energy Security (ACES) Act, sponsored by Reps. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Markey (D-Mass.), passed the House (219-212) on June 26. This comprehensive national climate and energy legislation would establish an economy-wide, greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade system designed to reduce GHG emissions by a minimum of 17 percent by 2020 and establish complementary measures to address climate change and build a clean energy economy. Other provisions include new renewable requirements for utilities, studies and incentives for new carbon capture and sequestration technologies, energy efficiency incentives for homes and buildings, and grants for green jobs.

The American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA), sponsored by Sen. Bingaman (D-N.M.), passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 17, on a bipartisan vote of 15 to 8. Later, Sens. Kerry (D-Mass.), Graham (R-S.C.) and Lieberman (I-Conn.) developed a basic framework with bipartisan support for climate action that focuses on pollution reduction and energy independence.  This effort likely supersedes the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, by Sens. Kerry and Boxer (D-Calif.), passed by the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee 11 to 1 after Republican members boycotted the bill’s markup and vote.

To garner broad support, the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman initiative includes provisions to satisfy a range of stakeholders. It supports: emission reduction targets similar to the ACES Act, with a cap-and-trade system, investment in clean energy technologies; construction of new nuclear power plants, off-shore drilling and clean coal technology and research for new carbon capture and sequestration technologies It appears that both climate change and energy policy will be on the 2010 legislative agenda, combined in the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, to be released in February, which may also include many of the provisions from ACELA.

On the global scale, lack of progress on negotiations prior to the December U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen required a scaling back in expectations. Initially the conference was seen as the forum for a new international agreement on climate to update the Kyoto Protocol, expiring in 2012, but the world’s leading and developing economies could not agree on terms. The high level of concern for the impact of global climate change drew 119 heads of state to Denmark and resulted in an accord that is a stepping stone towards a new international climate treaty. President Obama’s leadership was crucial in moving negotiations forward. A key success was the commitment of developing nations to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to address mitigation, adaptation and forestry issues worldwide. This is the first such commitment from the U.S. and the industrialized world to address the needs of those who live in poverty and are most impacted by climate change.

Public Education and Criminal Justice

By Mary Anderson Cooper

Public education: In 1965, Congress passed The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, with the aim of reducing the achievement gaps between students in rich and poor communities and among the races. During the Bush Administration, the legislation was called the No Child Left Behind program. Its primary focus shifted to one of periodic standardized testing, with funding reductions for schools that did not achieve established national standards. The penalties often fell most heavily on the schools facing the greatest educational challenges because they served the most disadvantaged people. 

The ESEA is due to be reauthorized in 2010. President Obama supports the emphasis on rewarding excellence in teaching but wants to assure that resources are available to all students in all communities and not limited to only the most successful schools.

There is controversy over how best to amend this legislation while reauthorizing it, but one thing is clear — increased resources are needed for the schools in disadvantaged communities so that children there will have a better opportunity to learn and to improve their scores on the tests required by the law. Generations of discrimination against children in low-income areas can only be addressed by eliminating inequality of resources and assigning the best teachers to those communities.

In addition to reauthorizing ESEA, Congress and the Administration will have more opportunities to improve public schools and other educational programs.  Another vehicle is the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, funded by the stimulus program, which has four main goals:

  • Raise academic standards,
  • improve data systems to measure student achievement and guide teachers,
  • ensure the quality of teachers and principals and
  • substantially improve low-performance schools.

States will compete for the funds, with as few as a dozen chosen for grants. The first grants will be awarded in April. A few states declined to compete, citing fears that the grants represent federal intrusion into state prerogatives.

The stimulus legislation also provided funds for other programs to improve education quality, including:

  • $5 billion for early childhood education (Headstart, child care, and programs for children with special needs),
  • $77 billion to strengthen elementary and secondary education, mostly to supplement beleaguered state budgets and preserve jobs for teachers and school employees,
  • $5 billion for innovation and improvement in achievement,
  • $30 billion to help college students pay tuition and fees and to help community colleges prepare students for work in emerging industries.

President Obama’s budget for FY2011 (beginning October 1) calls for a six percent increase in education funds, with emphasis on math and science training, while proposing the consolidation or elimination of duplicative programs.  In the State of the Union address, he said:

In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential. When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 states. Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job.

The president then called on Congress to enact proposals to make college attendance more affordable and college debt less burdensome. As in every area of the budget, there are interest groups that will gain or lose if proposals are enacted, and the struggle for funds is likely to be fierce.

Criminal justice: Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) introduced S 714 early in 2009, to create a blue-ribbon commission charged with doing a complete review of the U.S. criminal justice system and making recommendations for its improvement. At hearings on the legislation, Sen. Webb cited the obvious failures of the current system, pointing out that, although it has only five percent of the planet’s human population, the United States incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s known prisoners.  He also noted that, although vast numbers of drug users and sellers are in prison, the drug trade continues unabated in the United States, growing every year, thus raising questions about the effectiveness of incarceration as a means of controlling drug trade. Another area of concern is that post-incarceration programs for reentry into society are haphazard at best, and often non-existent.

S 714 has been endorsed by dozens of social welfare, law-enforcement and social justice organizations, as well as much of the religious community, including the PC(USA).