Federal Legislation – What’s Happening in Washington

Darryl Nirenberg
Partner
Josh Oppenheimer
Associate
Lesley Brock
Legislative Assistant
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Despite the House of Representatives being in recess since September 30, October was an interesting month on Capitol Hill. First, the Senate wrapped up a 3-monthslong fight to appoint Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 6, the Senate narrowly confirmed Kavanaugh by a vote of 51 to 49. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin offered the sole “Yes” vote from his party, while Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski was the lone senator from hers to oppose Kavanaugh.

Aside from the Kavanaugh vote, the Senate split its time between confirming other judicial nominees and sending what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) deemed “key bills” to President Trump’s desk before the November 6 midterm elections, including appropriations legislation to fund the government and a package of opioid-related bills. While Congress successfully passed three appropriations bills on September 28 to avoid a government shutdown, lawmakers packaged the remaining nine bills, including the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act (which funds the Department of Justice), into a short-term extension bill that expires December 7.

In addition to the funding bills, on October 3, the Senate passed H.R. 6, a package of legislation dedicated to fighting the opioid crisis and combating the trafficking of illegal drugs across the border. The president was expected to sign it into law around the time this issue went to print. The Senate also passed legislation that PORAC has endorsed — the Justice Served Act (H.R. 4854/S. 2345), which would give funding to law enforcement to tackle the backlog of cases with DNA evidence. President Trump signed that into law on October 10. 

While the Senate worked vigorously to accomplish tasks on a tight, midterm-driven timeline, members of the House, including the 53 members of the California delegation, have been at home campaigning, as all 435 of them are up for re-election. Although Republicans currently hold a 42-seat majority, experts predict that Democrats will win more seats than Republicans in November, which would “flip the House,” ceding control to the Democrats. Due to the number of tight races in California, political analysts have deemed it a “battleground” state whose outcomes greatly impact which party will win the House. Five Republican incumbents are facing particularly fierce challenges in what are considered “races to watch,” namely the 25th (Steve Knight), 48th (Dana Rohrabacher), 45th (Mimi Walters), 10th (Jeff Denham) and 50th (Duncan Hunter) districts.

PORAC on Capitol Hill in 2018: Year in Review

PORAC engaged in robust and successful federal advocacy during the 115th Congress. The Association had a number of legislative accomplishments, continued to provide input to Congress on several issues important to its members, strengthened new and existing relationships with policymakers and cemented its standing as a primary resource for lawmakers.

Throughout the year, lawmakers sought PORAC’s input on a number of issues, including grant funding, gun violence, school safety, sexual assault and mental health. PORAC provided direct law enforcement expertise to various members of Congress to assist them in improving legislation and finding ways to bolster resources for law enforcement.

As a primary example, in March, the Senate Judiciary Committee (which is predominantly in charge of introducing and passing law enforcement–related legislation) asked PORAC to submit testimony on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA provides significant grant funding to law enforcement to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. Highlighting a California community-based domestic violence reduction initiative, PORAC submitted compelling testimony explaining why the Senate Judiciary Committee should reauthorize VAWA. Since testifying, PORAC has worked with the Senate Judiciary and other committees to push for the act’s reauthorization. Although VAWA has not yet been officially reauthorized, Congress enacted a short-term extension that lasts until December 7. PORAC continues to work with Congress to guarantee that VAWA is reauthorized long-term, ensuring that PORAC’s members receive crucial grant funding.

Over the last year, PORAC has also continued to strengthen its relationships with the California delegation, meeting with nearly 50 congressional offices and both senators during its D.C. fly-ins, as well as with many members and their staff in their California district offices. While California is a powerhouse delegation because of its size, PORAC nonetheless worked to form strong relationships with other state delegations that are trying to pass law enforcement–related legislation, including offices from Louisiana, Nebraska, New Jersey and Texas. For example, PORAC identified a bill sponsored by a New Jersey congressman that would create a DOJ program to fund community health centers that place social workers with law enforcement agencies. PORAC contacted the congressman’s office and offered improvements to the bill that would shore up benefits for law enforcement. The office has maintained close contact with PORAC, and plans to reintroduce the bill with PORAC’s recommendations included.

In addition, PORAC has strengthened relationships with certain congressional committees, including the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Members from various states and committees seek both PORAC’s issue expertise and members’ anecdotal experiences.

PORAC has worked to enhance its relationships with the executive branch as well, meeting with White House officials and DOJ attorneys. In May, PORAC met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and advocated for greater law enforcement funding. PORAC remains engaged with the DOJ and White House on such matters. In 2018, PORAC also submitted letters of support to President Donald Trump and Attorney General Sessions on other issues, including increasing the number of district judgeships in California.

Before advocating for legislation, PORAC thoroughly reviews the bill in question and decides whether to support it. After establishing a position, PORAC is active in moving the legislation forward or working to improve the bill. For example, in February, after reviewing and taking a position in support of the aforementioned Justice Served Act, PORAC wrote a letter of support for the legislation, which it shared with the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, the two California senators and the entire California House delegation. PORAC explained that the Justice Served Act would give its members resources to help reduce the backlog of cold cases with DNA evidence. PORAC argued that the legislation would enhance the overall criminal justice system by providing specific funding for these cases for which law enforcement does not have additional resources to dedicate.

In addition, when PORAC was in D.C. for its annual fly-in in May, members had the opportunity to explain the importance of the Justice Served Act to members of Congress. During the week of PORAC’s fly-in, the House passed the Justice Served Act by a nearly unanimous vote. The Senate followed suit on September 28. This month, while PORAC was in D.C. for the opening of the National Law Enforcement Museum, President Donald Trump signed the Justice Served Act into law. Now, the DOJ will designate funding for law enforcement in order to solve the cold cases with DNA evidence. By fiercely advocating for the legislation, PORAC played an instrumental role in ensuring that members of Congress recognized its importance. The Justice Served Act is just one of the over 80 bills that PORAC has taken a stance on in 2018. PORAC will continue to review and advocate for legislation that benefits its members.