Federal Legislation – A Return to Normalcy?

Darryl Nirenberg
Eva Rigamonti
Patrick Northrup
Legislative Assistant
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

After a tumultuous and controversial start to the new decade, things in Washington have quieted down and taken a turn back toward the routine — if anything in President Donald Trump’s Washington can be considered routine. The impeachment trial in the Senate concluded with a whimper rather than a bang, and President Trump carried out two of the longest-standing traditions of the presidency: delivering a State of the Union address and releasing his budget recommendations. Each of these have potential ramifications for law enforcement agencies in California and across the nation.

Impeachment Acquittal

It is worth reviewing the final days of the Senate’s impeachment trial, which, after several weeks, wound its way to the all-but-preordained conclusion. On February 5, just a day after the president’s State of the Union address, the Senate voted to acquit President Trump. On the first article of impeachment, the charge that the president had abused his power in conditionally withholding military aid from Ukraine, the president was acquitted on a 52–48 vote. In the only surprise of the day, Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah joined with Senate Democrats to vote to convict. On the second impeachment article, the charge that the president had obstructed the congressional investigation, the president was acquitted on a 53–47 party-line vote. As the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to convict and remove a president, neither vote came close.

President Trump Promotes Law Enforcement in State of the Union

On February 4, the day before his Senate acquittal, President Trump went before nearly the entire Congress (several representatives declined to attend) to tout what he called “the great American comeback.” The president’s speech touched on many of his perceived accomplishments while laying out a continued vision for the country and implicitly making a case for his own re-election.

As he discussed his vision for the United States, he stressed the importance of his push to “keep Americans safe.” The president stated that “supporting the men and women of law enforcement at every level” is absolutely integral to his vision of a safe and secure America. He went on to claim that his administration has made progress on that goal, citing the arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers of 120,000 individuals charged with “nearly 10,000 burglaries, 5,000 sexual assaults, 45,000 violent assaults and 2,000 murders.” The president then went on to slam the state of California for, in his words, passing “an outrageous law declaring their whole state to be a sanctuary for criminal illegal immigrants…with catastrophic results.” In response, President Trump promoted a bill from Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) that would allow victims of crimes carried out by undocumented immigrants to sue so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.

The president also highlighted his administration’s efforts to combat human trafficking, noting that over the last three years, ICE has arrested over 5,000 alleged human traffickers and that he has signed nine pieces of legislation to combat the crime. Just days before the State of the Union, the president put additional force behind his words by signing an executive order on “Combating Human Trafficking and Online Child Exploitation in the United States.” The order establishes a new federal position that will focus solely on combating trafficking.

President Kicks Off 2021 Budget Process

Only a week after the president’s State of the Union, the White House released President Trump’s proposed budget, an event that signals the beginning of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 appropriations process. The budget featured a wide array of proposed cuts, including reductions in funding for the Department of Justice-administered grants that state and local law enforcement agencies rely on. In total, the president’s proposed budget for FY reduces DOJ funding as a whole by $730 million.

Of the most importance to state and local law enforcement agencies, the president’s budget would cut funding for Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) programs while also merging the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office with the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). The reduction of Byrne JAG funding from $547.21 million in FY 2020 to $412 million in FY 2021 represents a major cut to the primary source of federal aid to state, local and tribal law enforcement. While the exact impact of the COPS-OJP merger is unknown, it does represent a relatively substantial change. The budget does allocate $99 million for the COPS Hiring Grant program, which provides funding to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies to boost their teams.

However, the budget as proposed by the president is unlikely to gain much traction, let alone actually pass as proposed. Almost any proposal from the president is dead-on-arrival in the Democratic-controlled House, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that the Senate will largely ignore the president’s proposal in favor of the spending-cap deal agreed to with the House last year. Instead, the House and Senate will work to create a package that can pass both chambers before going to the president’s desk. Regardless of the process, PORAC will continue fighting for a budget that provides law enforcement agencies with the funding they need to serve their communities.