Federal Legislation – 115th Congress and President Trump Get to Work on Top Priorities

Darryl Nirenberg
Jason Abel
Of Counsel
Eva Rigamonti
Cameron O’Brien
Legislative Assistant
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

On January 20, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Republicans now control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, and they have begun working to implement many of their top legislative priorities.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remains Majority Leader, while Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has replaced Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who retired at the end of last Congress, as Minority Leader. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) retains his post as Majority Whip, and Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) will continue as Minority Whip.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) was re-elected Speaker of the House, and Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was re-elected House Minority Leader. Also remaining in their leadership posts are House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Notably, Representative Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) was selected to be co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which sets the party’s policy agenda and nominates members for committee assignments. Incidentally, Congressman Swalwell was also appointed to the House Judiciary Committee — the committee with jurisdiction over many law enforcement matters.

Affordable Care Act Repeal and Possible Replacement

Repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) has been the number one priority shared by the incoming administration and Republicans in Congress — and the House and Senate took action to facilitate ACA repeal even before Inauguration Day. In the early morning hours of January 12, the Senate voted 51–48 to pass a budget resolution instructing congressional committees to begin drafting a reconciliation bill to repeal the ACA. At the time this issue went to print, the budget resolution had been sent over to the House for approval and, pending its passage, House Republicans will begin developing ACA repeal legislation.

While President Trump and Republicans in Congress agree that Obamacare should be discontinued, there is less consensus as to when a potential replacement health care law would be introduced and what form that legislation might take. In fact, at a January 11 press conference (his first since winning the presidency), Trump made comments regarding ACA repeal and replacement that may conflict with the plans of GOP leaders in the House and Senate. Trump said the process “will be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously,” but Senate Majority Leader McConnell indicated that it may take more time to craft replacement legislation for the massive health care law than Trump has intimated.

Tax Reform

Another issue receiving much attention is tax reform, which has been on the Republicans’ wish list for years. Last summer, the House GOP released a tax reform blueprint in their “Better Way” agenda that outlined a number of their priorities. The prevailing belief at this point is that Republicans will push to bring a tax reform package to the House floor by late May or early June with the hopes of getting it through Congress by August recess.

Criminal Justice Reform

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has said that although the committee must first address the pressing issue of the Supreme Court vacancy by holding hearings on President Trump’s yet-to-be-named nominee, criminal justice reform will be one of the committee’s legislative priorities early on.

“It cleared the Committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress,” said Chairman Grassley of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), which was never voted on by the full Senate. “I don’t expect that to change.” Any criminal justice reform legislation pursued by the Committee this year will likely not be substantially different than last year’s version.

  1. 2123 aimed to achieve two main objectives: first, to loosen many mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for nonviolent offenders, and second, to implement various changes in the prison system aimed at reducing recidivism. During its fly-ins, PORAC has shared the California sentencing reform experience with members of Congress to ensure that any federal sentencing reform bill does not make the same mistakes that occurred in California. PORAC will continue to meet with lawmakers on this issue in the coming months.

Controversial Painting in Capitol Spurs Reactions From Law Enforcement

Each year, members of the U.S. House of Representatives are asked to select a piece of artwork created by a student in their districts to be displayed in the United States Capitol. This practice serves to recognize the talents and achievements of young constituents, as well as promoting artistic expression and discussion. While it is normally a controversy-free process, this year, Congressman William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) sparked debate when he chose a painting of protesters that depicted police officers as pigs. The painting elicited an impassioned response from the law enforcement community, including PORAC.

PORAC was deeply offended, not just by the artwork but also by the Congressman’s decision to proudly display it in the Capitol building, and expressed its membership’s frustration in an open letter to the lawmaker (see page 4).

AG Nominee Highlights Support for Law Enforcement at Confirmation Hearing

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid-January, attorney general nominee Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) showed himself to be a strong ally of the law enforcement community and a staunch defender of the rule of law.

In his opening testimony, Sessions lamented the fact that over the past several years, law enforcement as a whole has been “unfairly maligned and blamed for the actions of a few bad actors.” He added that many in law enforcement feel they have become targets and political leaders at the national level have abandoned them. Sessions said that the country will not be able to address rising crime without local law enforcement officers leading the way, and vowed that they would have his unwavering support as attorney general.

Sessions noted that the federal government has a critical role to play in supporting local law enforcement, which includes using the research and expertise of the Department of Justice to help develop the most effective and lawful enforcement methods to reduce crime, re-establishing and strengthening the partnership between federal and local officers to enhance a common and unified effort to reverse current rising crime rates, and building the foundation for relationships with their own communities through community-based policing programs.

Sessions said he feared that the recent spikes in violent crime and murder rates were not anomalies but rather the beginning of a dangerous trend. Sessions promised to address this issue head-on, saying that “protecting the people of this country from crime, and especially violent crime, is the high calling of the men and women of the Department of Justice.”

Furthermore, Sessions cited the heroin epidemic sweeping the country as another problem warranting immediate action. Tying the spread of illegal drugs to inadequate border security controls — an issue that PORAC brought up in the testimony it submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year — Sessions said that heroin brings “violence, addiction and misery” into every city and town in the country. He pledged to partner with state and local law enforcement to take down drug-trafficking cartels and dismantle gangs.

Another issue that could receive attention under a Sessions-led DOJ is that of digital privacy. During debate on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) last year, Sessions emerged as a champion for law enforcement after offering amendments to the proposed legislation to address some of the bill’s flaws as identified by PORAC. For example, one Sessions amendment would have made ECPA warrants subject to historically recognized exceptions, including instances when an individual provides consent for law enforcement to obtain the data, or in cases of exigent circumstances or emergencies.

Following the hearing, PORAC sent letters of support for Sessions’ confirmation to both Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Kamala Harris. Although his confirmation was not official at the time this article went to print, all indications pointed to it being likely, despite some opposition from Democrats.